Modern-day students spend most of their waking hours sharpening their minds at school, building relationships with friends and families, and pursuing a wide variety of hobbies. Although students tend to think of their social, academic, and physical activities as separate, these areas are quite synergistic, meaning success in one area translates to success in another. Conversely, ignoring one dimension of life has negative consequences on the others. We have discussed the importance of physical health in past blogs about sleep and nutrition, but perhaps the most important of these synergistic activities is exercise.
It is important to stay active when it comes to maintaining physical (and mental) health. Exercise’s positive impact on academic performance, however, is somewhat less talked about, in spite of significant scientific evidence showing exactly that. As time goes on and more research becomes available, the academic benefits of a healthy exercise regime are clearer than ever. Exercise, be it in the form of swimming, dancing, or sports—anything could prove effective as long as it keeps the kids physically active.
Let’s look at five of the most basic ways regular exercise can have benefits for students of all ages, from kindergarten to college.
In recent years, there have been more and more studies showing that kids (and adults) who exercised for as little as 20 minutes before taking a class display marked improvements in their ability to focus. There are a number of possible reasons for why this might be the case. Some experts theorize that physical activity stimulates circulation to the brain, making it easier for them to devote the necessary brainpower to the lessons. Others say that it’s because it works excess energy out of their systems, allowing them to stay on task. Regardless of the underlying reasons, the fact remains that a little bit of exercise has a big impact on how well students are able to concentrate on their lessons.
While it may not seem practical for most kids to get twenty minutes of activity in before their classes, other studies have suggested that having even just one workout per week had a noticeable effect on students’ overall performance.
Brain Cell Development
Recent human and animal studies show that regular aerobic exercise has profound effects on the brain. A recent New York Times article, “How Exercise Could Lead To A Better Brain”, describes experiments performed on mice at the University of Illinois. Mice who ran regularly on a wheel had more neurons—brain cells—than those who did not.
Also, mice who ran regularly had more complex connections between neurons, meaning they were able to access their brain cells more flexibly. Finally, the mice who ran regularly did better on cognitive tests, such as completing a maze. There’s evidence that this direct relationship also exists in humans.
The part of our brains that controls memory is called the hippocampus; throughout school years, it grows and develops with the rest of children’s brains. Studies have shown that keeping a regular exercise routine not only aided in the hippocampus’s development in students’ younger years but also slowed the rate at which it began to shrink later in life. The benefits of having a greater working memory are obvious for students across the board, and the increase in development paired with a decrease in degeneration down the road is an important way of ensuring student’s long-term success.
Another benefit that comes with being physically active is the positive impact it can have on kids’ moods. While this may not seem directly linked to academic performance, a number of studies have found that a student’s overall mood has a noticeable effect on how well they do in a number of essential areas, including absorbing new information and creative thinking.
Similar to improving a student’s mood, regular exercise can also be a great way to relieve stress. Research has indicated that students who engage in physical activity daily, even for a short time, are less prone to feeling the negative effects of stress. Similar to mood, elevated levels of stress cause classroom performance to suffer, with stressed-out students having a harder time focusing and retaining the information they learn.
Ultimately, academic performance is not the number one reason for students to stay active. The commonly known health benefits are enough of a reason to make exercise part of every student’s routine. The benefits we discussed here will be an added bonus to most. What matters most is that staying healthy plays an essential role in achieving long-term success, both in and out of the classroom.