I’ve written previously about the importance of physical activity, both within and outside of the school day, for reducing obesity in children. But new evidence suggests that there is also a positive relationship between physical fitness and academic performance. The more physically fit children are, the better their learning and memory. This provides yet another reason for us to view exercise as a vital component of health and well-being in children, and childhood as a critical timepoint during which which physical activity interventions can have a dramatic impact on future physical, emotional and intellectual success.
As recently reported by Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times, researchers at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign tested 48 children (boys and girls 9-10 years of age) for aerobic fitness. They used the gold-standard test (a treadmill test to measure maximal oxygen uptake, or VO2max) to assess maximal aerobic capacity, and then tested the children on learning and recall by asking them to memorize and correctly remember region names on a map. The higher fit children (as represented by the black bars in the figure at right) performed better on several aspects of the retention tasks, particularly when the recall challenge was more difficult.
These data support, once again, the incredibly importance of physical activity and fitness in a child’s holistic well-being and overall health. Moreover, they suggest that when we talk about educational reform and academic success, adding in extensive curricular material to meet stringent standardized testing requirements ignores the fact that physical activity is as critical to learning as it is to physical growth and development.
Finally, if you’ve ever observed a child at play, in motion, and engaged in activity, you can’t help but recognize that movement and fitness capture that aspect of childhood that is so vital to the human spirit: fun, happiness and freedom. This poem by Theodore Roethke speaks perfectly to why physical activity– be it structured or unstructured– deserves to be prioritized and supported in the daily life of the child.
Child on Top of a Greenhouse
The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!