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Vigorous Exercise Can Lead to Academic Gains


A group of researchers found that exercise -- when it is vigorous enough -- can help improve students academic performance. While not all kids break a sweat every day, even some activity during the school day can help students focus, one of the authors said. Included: Information about physical activity and learning.

The study Effect of Physical Education and Activity Levels on Academic Achievement in Children conducted by researchers from Michigan State University and Tarleton State University, offers some mixed news when it comes to physical activity and student learning.

While students in the study who engaged in physical activity tended to perform better in school, the benefits were seen when students exercised vigorously -- enough to increase their heart rate and breathing. Students who participated in sports attained that level of exercise; participating in physical education classes did not seem to do the trick, the study noted.

According to the study, 214 sixth-grade students were randomly assigned to physical education during either first or second semesters. Moderate and vigorous physical activity in the number of 30-minute time blocks outside of school was assessed on the scale of 1 (no activity), 2 (some activity), or 3 (activity meeting Healthy People 2010 guidelines). Healthy People 2010 is a U.S. government initiative that sets health objectives for citizens to meet by the end of the decade.

Then the students academic performance was assessed using grades from four core academic classes and standardized test scores, in this case Terra Nova percentiles. The study indicated that students grades were similar regardless of whether students were enrolled in physical education class during first or second semesters. Physical education classes averaged only 19 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous student activity. Students who either performed some or met Healthy People 2010 guidelines for vigorous activity had significantly higher grades, the authors concluded.

But at the same time, any physical activity during the day can contribute to student engagement, by helping youngsters to feel more alert, according to one of the studys authors, Dr. Dawn Coe, an assistant professor of exercise science and fitness/wellness at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Dr. Coe talked with Education World about why vigorous exercise helps school performance and the value of physical activity during the school day.

Dr. Mara Sapon-Shevin
Dr. Dawn Coe

Education World: How would you characterize the level of physical activity necessary to show changes in academic performance?

Dr. Dawn Coe: Moderate physical activity involves some increase in breathing or heart rate -- one example is brisk walking -- while vigorous physical activity involves a large increase in breathing or heart rate and sweating, as in the case of jogging. Most sports that children play qualify as vigorous -- the sports most often played by the students in our study included football, basketball, soccer, baseball, softball, and swimming. Other activities that can be categorized as vigorous include skateboarding; and playing games with friends, such as tag; cycling, and jumping on a trampoline. It appears that vigorous activity, which can be achieved by participating in these activities and sports, is necessary to show changes in academic performance.

EW: Why would moderate to high physical activity improve student performance?

Dr. Coe: Increased physical activity during the school day may increase alertness and reduce boredom, which may lead to increased attention span and concentration. It is also suggested that increased activity levels might be related to increased self-esteem, which would improve classroom behavior as well as performance. It is possible that vigorous activity [such as the level achieved by playing sports] may provide the threshold level of activity needed to produce these potentially desirable effects.

EW: How can classroom teachers use the information from this study?

"It appears that vigorous activityis necessary to show changes in academic performance."

Dr. Coe: Even in the classroom, students can still get in some of their recommended daily activity. There are many programs classroom teachers can use to incorporate physical activity into their lessons. There are lessons available for math, science, social studies, and reading, just to name a few. Classroom teachers can provide opportunities for activity during the day, especially if the school does not have required physical education classes, in order to help to improve students academic achievement. Short bursts of activity throughout the day may help to decrease the pent-up energy kids have. This may result in increased attention spans and better behavior, which may help students to perform better in school.

EW: How do these finding affect the debate on whether physical education is a luxury many schools cannot afford these days?

Dr. Coe: Students enrolled in physical education classes during our study did not perform better academically than those who spent an extra 55 minutes in the classroom. However, less classroom time did not translate into decreased academic performance, either. Previous research examining the affect of allocating time during the school day to physical education programs showed similar results, demonstrating that [some] decreased time spent in academic programs did not adversely affect the academic performance of the students.

Another important point is that many children are not active outside of school. Therefore, physical education classes may provide the only opportunity for students to be active during the day. In addition, physical inactivity is a major contributor to the current obesity epidemic. Daily physical education may allow students to meet the recommended level of physical activity, which is 60 minutes of daily moderate-to- vigorous activity. This increase in activity, through physical education class, may help to decrease the amount of overweight students in our schools.

EW: How could or should physical education curriculum be changed to improve students' health and academic achievement?

"Short bursts of activity throughout the day may help to decrease the pent-up energy kids have. This may result in increased attention spans and better behavior, which may help students to perform better in school."
Dr. Coe: I think that [seeing] the influence of physical activity on grades and on body weight provides an opportunity to view physical education in a new light. [Physical education] classes are definitely a lot different than they were years ago. Classes are now beginning to focus on activity and fitness, instead of being strictly sports-based.

I am currently running a program where we provide pedometers to each student in an elementary school and the students are participating in pedometer programs. We are also teaching these students about fitness and how to be active in ways that don't involve equipment or sports. I think physical education classes are now beginning to focus on the health and fitness of children, which is where the focus should be.

It is important to teach children about a variety of activities that can improve fitness and that are enjoyable. If the students arent having fun being physically active, then they are less likely to continue a physically active lifestyle. Also, students may not be good at sports or may not like the competitive nature of sports and if that is the only way they learn to be active, they may choose a sedentary lifestyle instead. I think schools need to look out for the health and well-being of their students in addition to their academic preparation. Physical education provides the opportunity for schools to place a focus on health and fitness, without decreasing students academic performance.

This e-interview with Dr. Dawn Coe is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Published 03/14/2007