Physical activity boosts kids’ brain power and academic prowess

A consensus statement which includes a University of Exeter researcher says exercise boosts kids’ and young people’s brain power and academic prowess.

Time taken away from lessons for physical activity is time well spent and does not come at the cost of getting good grades, say the 24 signatories to the statement on physical activity in schools and during leisure time, published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The Statement, which distils the best available evidence on the impact of physical activity on children and young people, was drawn up by a panel of international experts with a wide range of specialisms, from the UK, Scandinavia, and North America, in Copenhagen, Denmark, in April of this year.

It includes 21 separate statements on the four themes of fitness and health; intellectual performance; engagement, motivation and wellbeing; and social inclusion, and spans structured and unstructured forms of physical activity for 6 to 18 year olds in school and during leisure time.

It says that:

  • Physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness are good for children’s and young people’s brain development and function as well as their intellect
  • A session of physical activity before, during, and after school boosts academic prowess
  • A single session of moderately energetic physical activity has immediate positive effects on brain function, intellect, and academic performance
  • Mastery of basic movement boosts brain power and academic performance
  • Time taken away from lessons in favour of physical activity does not come at the cost of getting good grades

In terms of the physiological benefits of exercise, the Statement says that cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness “are strong predictors” of the risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes in later life, and that vigorous exercise in childhood helps to keep these risk factors in check.

But frequent moderate intensity and, to a lesser extent, low intensity exercise will still help improve kids’ heart health and their metabolism, while physical activity is a key component of the treatment of many long term conditions in 6-18 year olds. But the positive effects of exercise are not restricted to physical health, says the Statement.

Regular physical activity can help develop important life skills, and boost self-esteem, motivation, confidence and wellbeing. And it can strengthen/foster relationships with peers, parents, and coaches. And just as importantly, activities that take account of culture and context can promote social inclusion for those from different backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientation, skill levels and physical capacity.

Incorporating physical activity into every aspect of school life and providing protected public spaces, such as bike lanes, parks and playgrounds “are both effective strategies for providing equitable access to, and enhancing physical activity for, children and youth,” says the Statement.

Professor Craig Williams, Director of the Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre, Sport and Health Sciences at Exeter was one of eight international speakers invited to provide expert statements to aid Danish colleagues revise their national consensus guidelines. Professor Williams said: “Over the 30 years we have been researching the health and well-being of young people, we have seen the accumulation of paediatric data across physiological, psychological, environmental and social issues. This 21 point consensus statement reflects the importance of enhanced physical activity, not just in schools but sports and recreational clubs, with the family, and even for those children with long term illness. At all levels of society we must ensure that enhanced physical activity is put into practice.”

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