Adolescents who are physically active perform better on attention tasks. Cycling girls can concentrate better at school than girls who come by car or bus. School sports are a predictor for better school results. And secondary school students who do sports and exercise outside school drop out less. These are just a few findings that crop up in the scientific literature.

One clue after another is looming that exercise is good for children’s learning performance. However, a lot is still unclear. “We see the relationship between exercise and school performance, but we don’t know how it works,” says sports scientist and epidemiologist Amika Singh of the VU University Medical Center. Is exercise actually the cause of better school performance? Or is there something else going on?

Highly Educated Parents

Singh leads the SMART MOVES! research project, in which researchers from various Dutch universities, colleges, policy institutions and schools are investigating whether extra exercise at school can improve cognitive and school performance. There is not enough evidence for this now, although there is no lack of research. There is, however, a lack of good research, concluded Singh and her colleagues in a 2012 review of the scientific literature. The connection between learning and movement keeps popping up. But because most studies are poorly designed, for example because the educational level of the parents was not controlled for, it is unclear whether exercise is a driving mechanism behind good school performance.

Parents’ education is the biggest predictor of children’s educational achievement, says Singh. “Parents with a good education are more likely to pay dues at sports clubs, which may explain why children who play sports do well in school. I want to know exactly what’s going on.”

Improved Attention

In any case, exercise doesn’t make learning any worse, that much is certain. Exercise is healthy anyway. Also important: you can replace part of the academic class time with exercise without compromising school performance. The experiments of SMART MOVES! in Dutch schools should provide more insight. Not only in whether exercise is effective, but also which form of exercise is best. Jogging, jumping or a gymnastics exercise? And when should students do that activity: before, during or after class?

The first results are now in. Among 56 primary school children, the researchers looked at the difference between dancing once or twice with a video in the classroom for twenty minutes. Dancing twice was found to be more beneficial for their attention than moving once or not moving at all. More often seems better, but how long the exercise should last seems to make little difference. After ten, twenty or thirty minutes of cycling on an ergometer, the improvement in attention was the same, another unpublished experiment in 99 children showed. When the researchers looked at which form of exercise is best, they found no difference. Activities involving endurance, strength, or coordination all failed to better process information and maintain attention. The team suspects that this is because the activities studied were not very strenuous.

New Nerve Cells

Why would physical exercise actually improve learning? “A theory from neurobiology is that sports and exercise give the brain more blood,” explains Singh. That means more oxygen and nutrients, which would be good for better concentration, working memory and suppressing unimportant stimuli from the environment. In addition, the amount of the brain chemical BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) would increase. Singh calls BDNF a kind of pokon for the brain; it ensures the production of new nerve cells.

It is difficult to prove whether a changing brain structure explains the relationship between learning and movement. Singh: “You should put all the kids who participate in research in a scanner.” Another explanation may be found in social science: exercise can improve the atmosphere in the classroom. Singh: “It is possible that a pleasant atmosphere makes students feel safer, which means that they learn better.”

Exercise program

Based on the experiments and the literature search, Singh and her colleagues put together a feasible exercise program that they are now testing. Pupils from seven primary schools will exercise for ten minutes in the classroom every day for more than two months. Half of the classes follow the program, the other half do not. The researchers keep track of all students’ scores on things such as concentration and attention. They expect the results at the end of this year.

“The collaboration with the schools and other experts from the field is very important in this regard,” said Singh. “The teachers are ultimately the ones who have to implement the program in their lesson.” Most people agree, according to interviews. As long as that extra exercise is possible in the classroom and extensive preparation is not necessary.

Jumping And Counting

In the Netherlands there are more initiatives to explore the relationship between exercise and learning. For example, in 2015, researchers from the University of Groningen published that students who were given active language and math lessons three times a week, improved at math and spelling. Exercise in the classroom is an effective method for teachers to boost children’s academic skills, they wrote in the journal Pediatrics.

As part of SMART MOVES! Windesheim University of Applied Sciences is investigating the effect of another new teaching program in collaboration with the VUmc. In five weeks, 7th grade children learn how to juggle through a number of short instructional videos, while practicing the times tables at the same time. Interested schools are working with the research team to find out if juggling improves math skills and automating the tables.

Side Effect

You may wonder why scientists investigate the relationship between sport and school performance so extensively. Isn’t movement at school especially important for the motor development of children, to learn to control balance, grab something, or shoot a ball? And for raising children to be healthy, active citizens, not for academic achievement? Singh agrees. “The health argument of exercise counts the most. Better learning performance would be a nice side effect, but we need to explore it to convince policy makers to integrate movement into the classroom. The government only implements methods in education that have been proven to be effective.”

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