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Exercise may be key to boosting teens' academic performance

Published: Thursday, Oct. 24 2013 6:20 a.m. MDT

Moderate to vigorous exercise seems to improve the academic work of teenagers. And it's particularly good at helping girls improve their science scores, according to researchers from the universities of Strathclyde and Dundee in the United Kingdom.

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Parents who want their teens to do better in school might want to send them outside to play hard for a bit. Research from the United Kingdom indicates that moderate to vigorous exercise helps teens academically. And it's especially good at helping girls do better in science.

The study is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Researchers from the universities of Strathclyde and Dundee said the improvements lasted, "with the findings pointing to a dose-response effect — the more intensive the exercise taken, the greater the impact on test results," they said in a written statement.

The results are based on a sample of close to 5,000 children who participated in the Children of the ’90s study. That study tracked long-term health of around 14,000 children from southwest England, born in 1991 and 1992.

Activity levels were measured using a device called an accelerometer, worn on an elasticized belt by the subjects when they were 11. The duration and intensity of exercise was examined for between three and seven days. On average, boys clocked about 29 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise, while girls racked up about 18 minutes. Experts recommend they get 60 minutes a day.

The researchers then looked at the children's academic performance in math, science and English at points in their academic careers when they were subjected to compulsory testing. At age 11, the took the first stage of a national test, at age 13, the second stage and between 15 and 16 they took the General Certificate of Secondary Education assessment.

The researchers controlled for factors like birth weight, mom's age when baby was born, health habits and socioeconomics, among other things. They found that better academic performance across all three subjects was impacted by how much exercise the children got. They also noted that "academic performance at the age of 13 was similarly linked to how much exercise they'd gotten at age 11."

Testing at the older age showed not only a link to exercise, but measurable improvements based on how much exercise they'd gotten at age 11. Boys showed measurable academic improvement for each additional 17 minutes, and girls for additional 12 minutes.

"Physical activity is more than just important for your physical health," Dr. Josie Booth, a study leader from Dundee University, told the BBC. "There are other benefits, and that is something that should be especially important to parents, policy makers and people involved in education."

The researchers speculate about the benefits that would be afforded if children each increased to a full hour a day the amount of time they participate in moderate to vigorous activities.

"If moderate to vigorous physical activity does influence academic attainment, this has implications for public heath and education policy by providing schools and parents with a potentially important stake in meaningful and sustained increases in physical activity," they wrote.

The importance of exercise to academics has been well-documented, and many advocates decry the fact that in budget- and time-pinched schools, opportunities for activity, whether recess or physical education classes, have decreased. A story in Medicalnewstoday.com noted that, "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), regular physical activity in childhood and adolescence has many significant benefits, including helping to build healthy bones and muscles, improving strength and endurance and increasing self-esteem.

It said CDC statistics show only 29 percent of high school students get a full hour of activity a day, which is how much the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends.

The Spark campaign, which targets childhood obesity, points to an essay by Charles Basch of Columbia University. He said exercise helps students in a variety of ways, including boosting oxygen flow to the brain, creating more brain neurotransmitters and changing brain chemistry in ways that benefit "survival of neurons in areas responsible for learning, memory, and higher thinking."

EMAIL: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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