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?
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.

Get Moving

Do Your Homework

If you don't think your child is getting enough time in the gym, check your state's Department of Education website to see if there are mandates regarding the amount and type of P.E. Keep in mind that quantity doesn't always correspond with quality. "In a good physical-education class, kids should spend a minimum of 50 percent of the time doing at least moderate physical activity rather than standing on the sidelines waiting for a turn," notes Darla M. Castelli, Ph.D., associate professor of physical education at the University of Texas at Austin. It's also important that the curriculum exposes your child to a variety of activities like basketball, volleyball, and tennis. This will help her discover athletic passions that can grow into lifetime pursuits.

Get Political

Rally support for improving exercise opportunities in your child's school. "Meet with your child's physical-education teacher and school administrator, and work collaboratively to improve physical-activity options before, during, and after school," suggests Cheryl Richardson, senior director of programs at NASPE. For example, you might mention this study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Researchers concluded that making more time for phys ed doesn't negatively impact academic achievement and, in many cases, can actually have a positive impact on test scores, behavior, and concentration. Also get as many administrators as possible to view the inspiring video from SPARK, a nonprofit public-health organization in San Diego, on why kids need more physical education, at the beginning of this story.

Don't Stop at Gym

Peek into David Hardesty's fifth-grade class in Gillette, Wyoming, and you'll get a firsthand lesson in what exercise experts are calling "brain breaks"(though they should really be called "brain boosters"). Every 15 minutes, Hardesty has his students engage in two minutes of exercise like sit-ups and jumping jacks. The strategy has had a major impact. "My students have had double-digit gains on their math, reading, and language-usage standardized tests," says Hardesty. See if your school is inclined to try out these breaks, which don't cost anything and are easy to implement.

Your district may be interested in experimenting with another emerging public-school trend: optional early-morning workouts in which students do push-ups, squats, relay courses, games, and more. Kathleen Tullie, whose children attend Memorial Elementary in Natick, Massachusetts, and a group of fellow moms even started a 60-minute A.M. fitness program known as BOKS (Build Our Kids' Success). Run by parent volunteers and teachers, it is now offered at close to 200 schools nationwide. Visit bokskids.org for info on how to bring it to your school.

Pitch In

If money is a constraint for your school's athletic program, start fund-raising or explore grant opportunities. You might want to forgo candy-bar and wrapping-paper sales in favor of something that promotes activity, such as a walkathon or a community 5K. Encourage your kids to join you. You'll be leading by example -- and making the whole family fitter in the process.

Also consider looking for a local financial partner. Jacqueline Edelberg, a Chicago mom and the coauthor of How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance, helped turn around Nettelhorst, her kids' under-performing elementary school. One of her big achievements was convincing the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks to fund Nettelhorst's new state-of-the-art fitness room. "There are so many potential partners, such as sports-gear makers, corporations with wellness initiatives, and chambers of commerce," Edelberg says. "You just have to scout them out and approach them."

More Ways to Move

Despite your best lobbying efforts, your child probably won't get all the physical activity she needs at school. Try these ideas to do more exercise before and after class.

  1. Get to school on your own steam. Walking, scootering, or riding a bike helps prime your child to learn. You can organize a "walking school bus" with neighboring families. Or, if your school isn't nearby, park far enough away to give her legs a good stretch.
  2. Don't rush to start homework. Instead, let your child recharge his brain with active play. Joe Becwar, a New York City dad, takes his son Nate, 6, to the park after school. "It makes a big difference in his ability to concentrate on homework," says Becwar.
  3. Inject sweat into her study time. Brain breaks aren't just for schools. When your child is reading or writing, set a kitchen timer for ten to 20 minutes. When it goes off, have her jump rope or toss a ball around before resuming the assignment.
  4. Help him get physical. Whether your child does karate, swimming, or soccer, letting him join an active after-school program will not only help him develop a new skill but may also enhance his concentration, improve his confidence, and help him make new friends.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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