The Mentality of Physical Activity

An exciting new study came out this week that is sure to add fuel to the debate about cutting physical education from schools. Study after study shows the cognitive benefits of physical activity in school age kids. The new research adds to previous findings in a well-controlled experimental design.

Researchers from the Medical College of Georgia worked with nearly 200 sedentary and overweight kids between the ages of 7 and 11 years old. They divided the kids up into three groups, including a control group that did no physical activity after school, a group that did 20 minutes of vigorous activity after school and another that did 40 minutes of activity. Each of the activity groups worked out 5 days a week for three months.

The kids wore heart monitors to track their activity levels while they played running games like tag, relay races, jump rope, etc. All the kids took cognitive tests for math, reading and executive function (planning, organizing, focusing and impulse control) before they started the program and at its completion.

In the end, the kids in the 40-minute exercise group showed significant improvement on cognitive tests, those in the 20-minute group showed about half the improvement and those in the sedentary group showed no improvement at all. Brain scans supported the results, showing increased activity in brain regions involved in executive function in the activity group kids.

In addition, the kids in both exercise groups showed some improvement in math skills but no groups showed improvement in reading skills. These results are all consistent with other studies done in adults. Previous studies have shown increased grey matter in exercising older adults and increased performance on cognitive tests.

Yet we stand by and allow cutting of PE programs from our schools due to budget constraints. Isn’t improvement on test scores one of the major areas that schools are focusing on today? If daily physical activity improves test scores, shouldn’t we make it a priority for kids to get that?

In fact a Canadian study showed just that. Those researchers split kids into two groups; half took PE once a day and the other half received extra classroom instruction. Again, the PE group outperformed the non-PE group on tests, even in subjects where the non-PE group was getting extra instruction.

One problem is that 20 years ago, when many of today’s parents were kids, we were able to get plenty of unstructured activity after school all by ourselves. Today kids’ time is sucked up by an abundance of homework, free access to TV and video games and generally busy schedules. Plus, they just don’t have the freedom to run around the neighborhood like we used to.

Last year the American Academy of Pediatricians released a statement encouraging more ‘free and unstructured play’ in kids. Not only does this get kids the physical activity that they need but it allows them to employ their imagination and build their creativity levels and social skills as well.

If we won’t pay for more PE programs in schools, then we have to do something else. We should all strive to get our kids huffing and puffing on a regular basis in activities not always dictated by parents or over-structured sports coaches (of which I’m one).

We have to get them excited about physical activity again by bringing back the fun in it all. We should be begging them to come in before it gets too dark, not begging them to get out and away from the TV.

Copyright (c) 2007 BrainFit For Life