We know that exercise is good for the body, but how about the brain?
And more specifically, does physical activity help children learn better?
The latest science reveals the effects of movement on children’s brains, and shows that exercise can be a powerful tool for learning.
We have known for a while that children with good cardiovascular fitness have better cognitive function, memory, and ability to focus.
But what we haven’t been certain about is causality — Is exercise increasing memory and attention span, or is it that children who have good memory and attention like to exercise?
Over the last five years, an increasing body of evidence proves that the answer is the former: Exercise improves memory and learning.
The latest findings could have huge implications for kids’ study habits and school curriculums (not to mention the routines of adult workers).
Here is what some of the studies show:
Exercise after learning improves retention
This study revealed that people who exercised 4 hours after a memory test (the test involved seeing and remembering very detailed pictures) had better retention 24 hours after the test. The results indicate that exercise affects the process by which memories are consolidated (transferred from short-term to long-term memory).
Even short bursts of exercise improve the ability to focus
This study showed that as little as 4 minutes of intense in-class exercise (called “FUNtervals”) increased the ability to focus among 9–11 year olds.
Even a single “dose” of exercise boosts learning
This study revealed that 20 minutes of fast walking (60% of max heart rate) on a treadmill increased reading comprehension in 10-year-old children. The learning benefits have been especially profound for children with ADHD.
Exercise Increases Motor Skills Learning
This study showed that as little as a single 15-minute bout of cardiovascular exercise increased brain connectivity and efficiency. Just 15 minutes of aerobic exercise on a bike immediately after practicing a complex motor skills task (a “pinch test”) resulted in improved performance at the task 24 hours after learning it.
Physically active children are less depressed
This study revealed that the risk of depression is reduced for physically active children. This is especially relevant in today’s society, as the number of children and teenagers seeking help for depression and anxiety is on the rise in most western countries.
Data on when to exercise has not been consistent — in some of the research, it has been better to exercise during learning (“reading on a treadmill”), whereas in other studies exercising before or after learning is better. Future studies will likely bring clarity to the optimal timing, but the important thing is to know that exercise enhances learning.
For me personally, I swear by my morning run because it makes me sharper mentally all day long. There is no doubt that running in the morning makes me better at work throughout the day — I think more clearly and overall have a more optimistic outlook on work and life. Many of today’s top business leaders and entrepreneurs also include exercise as a key component of their morning routine.
The impact of exercise on the brain is expertly detailed in the book The Real Happy Pill by Anders Hansen, a physician and psychiatry specialist from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. The best-selling book has sparked a discussion about how exercise can be used as a tool for learning, and has caused the Swedish government to investigate whether schools should change their curriculum on a national level.
Many Swedish schools have already started to incorporate more exercise for children, often building in physical activity for 20–30 minutes before classes start for the day. The participating schools have reported that children are calmer, more focused, and better able to learn as a result of the morning exercise.
The effects of exercise on learning have perhaps been downplayed because we often associate kids’ exercise with sports. Additionally, exercise has not been as easy to commercialize as pharmaceuticals or supplements. If these results had been obtained from a food supplement, just imagine how heavily marketed that pill would be!
It is time to expand our view of exercise for children. Exercise for kids goes far beyond what happens at the gym, or while running, or playing football.
For children, exercise can be walking or riding a bike to school instead of being driven in a car.
We should restrict access to cell phones and computers during some parts of the school day, so kids will go outside and play instead of staring into a screen.
For adults, “exercise” can be as simple as always walking up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Even a daily walk can be great medicine for the mind — reducing the risk of dementia by as much as 40%.
The small stuff makes a big difference.
If you don’t do it for yourself, at least do it for your kids.
If the latest science is any indication, exercise as a tool for learning will gain significant attention in the years to come.
The results are too powerful to ignore.
If you want your kids to be smarter, send them outside to play.
Andrew Merle writes about living well, including good habits for happiness, health, productivity, and success. Subscribe to his email list at andrewmerle.com.