Active Learners: Why Kids Need PE

Exercise isn't only good for your child's body; it also helps shape his mind. So why are schools cutting phys ed and outdoor play from the curriculum?
We Need More Physical Education in Schools
We Need More Physical Education in Schools
Brain scan

Your second-grader has a spelling quiz today. It's 7:30 A.M. To help her do her best, you should...

A. Give her a pep talk.
B. Quiz her on the material.
C. Turn on some music and challenge her to jump around for ten minutes.

Okay, it's a trick question, since all these strategies can be helpful. But if you answered C, you've aced the prep test -- and there's a very good chance your child will do well too.

Of course, you know that regular physical activity is important for kids' health and reduces their risk of becoming overweight. However, the intriguing news is that it's also associated with higher academic achievement. A recent study by the Delaware Department of Education and the nonprofit Nemours Health & Prevention Services analyzed the records of more than 80,000 Delaware public-school students. It found that the kids who were more physically fit generally performed better on reading and math tests than their less-active peers. "More exercise appears to provide an even greater benefit, though short bursts can also enhance a child's cognitive function," says Neal Halfon, M.D., an advisor to the Too Small to Fail campaign, which raises awareness about the state of America's kids.

Studies suggest that physical activity during school is particularly powerful for kids. Researchers at the University of Rome "Foro Italico" found that when 8- to 11-year-olds exercised right before taking a test, they were better able to concentrate and their scores improved by an average of 10 percent.

There's a clear scientific basis for this phenomenon, explains John Ratey, M.D., the coauthor of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Physical activity causes the brain to produce a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which helps build and maintain nerve-cell connections. "The stronger these networks become, the easier it is for a child to understand and retain information," says Dr. Ratey. Exercise also causes the brain and body to produce neurotransmitters that help brain cells communicate and enhance a child's mood, motivation, and focus.

Most parents don't need a biology lesson to be convinced of this body-brain link. When Lydia Odell's son, Brady, now 6, started kindergarten, he would rather move around than sit still during class. So Odell, who had experienced "the wiggles" herself as a kid, decided to have Brady run a few laps around the house or do jumping jacks before school. The extra activity has paid off. "He'll come home now and tell me, 'I had a good morning and had my listening ears on,' " she says.

Unfortunately, too many kids aren't getting enough physical activity at school to reap the potential benefits in the classroom. Across the country, financially strapped school systems are cutting back on P.E. classes to balance budgets. And in many places recess has become a casualty of the current pressure to raise standardized test scores, as schools are maximizing class time and minimizing breaks; only nine states have mandatory recess. A study funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development across ten sites showed that third-graders had gym classes for just 69 minutes per week. That's not even close to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) guideline of 150 minutes of P.E. per week for grade-schoolers and 225 minutes for middle-schoolers. But you don't have to settle for the limited physical activity your school provides. There are a number of steps you can take to inject more movement into your child's school day.

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