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2018 Apr

The Key to School Success

These days we’re obsessed with success—particularly book smarts, AP classes, higher education, and a preoccupation with straight As. But piling on the homework and study time doesn’t always yield results. Pushing our kids for those perfect report cards often backfires if they want, you know, a real life.

Could there be a much simpler, easier path to academic success? There is one thing that can help. It’s not hard to do, it comes naturally to kids, and it doesn’t require helping with confusing math problems even you can’t figure out. Yay!

Research shows that exercise has a positive effect on school performance. A recent Finnish study published in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport indicates that the more physically active boys are, the better they perform on academic tests including reading and arithmetic.

We should probably take a big hint from Finland. Despite a more laid-back approach to education, the Finnish school system ranks among the best in the world and regularly turns out high-performing students. The publicly funded education program starts children on the right track with a focus more on play and less on sit-down-and-study tactics, with 50-minute recesses a regular part of the school day. Interesting, right?

In the above study, researchers analyzed 89 boys and 69 girls aged six to eight years in grades one to three. Heart rate monitors and movement sensors were used to track active and sedentary activity times.

They found that the more physically active boys were, the more likely they were to score higher on academic tests measuring reading comprehension and arithmetic skills, while more sedentary time correlated with lower scores.

“High levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and low levels of sedentary time in grade one were related to better reading skills in grades one to three among boys,” says Eero Haapala, Ph.D. “We also observed that boys who had a combination of low levels of physical activity and high levels of sedentary time had the poorest reading skills through grades one to three.”

Interestingly, these results didn’t seem to apply as much to the girls. This could be related to the fact that attention disorders that affect learning, such as ADHD, are more prevalent in boys. Research is proving again and again that exercise is “nature’s Ritalin,” an effective method to improve inattention and hyperactivity.

For example, a study in Pediatrics involving kids aged seven to nine showed that those who participated in a regular after-school exercise program had better executive function in the brain. This results in improved focus, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, areas that ADHD sufferers struggle with.

Regardless of gender, exercise is good for everyone. Maintaining a regular exercise routine long-term is important, but there are immediate brain benefits as well. Exercising for just 20 minutes prior to taking a test has been shown to boost scores. It’s no wonder, since it burns off excess nervous energy, boosts mood, and helps clear brain fog, thus helping the child think clearly and recall information more easily. A morning workout on a test day is a bright idea!

Of course, the benefits extend well beyond the classroom. Exercise impacts every part of a person’s health—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

You’re probably aware of the more obvious physical perks like increased cardiorespiratory fitness, endurance, and strength, as well as lower body fat and better balance and athletic performance. There are also numerous emotional and mental benefits that can make all the difference in your child’s quality of life.

For one, it’s a natural mood booster. Exercise causes chemical reactions in the body and brain that trigger feelings of well being. It’s even a proven treatment for depression and anxiety. It’s no surprise that physical activity is a great stress buster. In light of increasing usage of pharmaceuticals for mood disorders in both children and adults, it makes one wonder about over-reliance on medications, especially when we have instant availability to a powerful natural treatment. How about we try moving more?

Given all this information, I’m dumbfounded as to why a lot of schools in the U.S. are reducing or even eliminating recess. At my first-grader’s school, kids actually lose recess time if they have been acting up in class. Won’t that just compound the problem? (They only get two 15-minute sessions a day, anyway.)

Cutting physical activity in favor of sitting and “focusing” for longer periods is counterproductive to the developing brain and body. Even as adults, sitting is the new smoking, considering how detrimental it is to overall health.

So what’s a frustrated parent to do? You want to help your kids succeed in life, including doing well in school and staying healthy. Even if your local school system isn’t quite on board with the importance of physical activity, you can do plenty at home to set your kids up for success. Here are a few ideas:

1. Lock them outside.
Okay, maybe not lock them out, but you know what I mean. Outdoor playtime naturally fosters fitness, learning, and creativity all at the same time. Help them help themselves by getting outside for a dose of nature and sunshine.

2. Let them go out for sports.
When you sign your kid up for soccer, baseball, track, etc., you’re setting them up for a multipoint system of success. This is the fun alternative to an “exercise routine” with regimented workouts that won’t stick (heck, we struggle with that as adults). It’s better to get them involved in something enjoyable and socially engaging. This way they get their hearts pumping and at the same time build skills, learn how to work as a team, and grow a healthy competitive side, too.

3. Just play!
Activity sessions don’t have to be organized. Whether outdoors or indoors, letting it be fun is key. Just getting outside can lead to active exploring or games of tag, hopscotch, leapfrog, or whatever else they come up with.

If you’re stuck indoors, your kids can still be active. Turn on music they can dance to. Find some fun kids workouts on YouTube. Save all the bubble wrap from your delivered packages (or buy a big roll) and let them jump on it. Those hopper balls with handles are a worthy investment. Or simply turn off the screens and see what happens. They may come up with something on their own.

4. Get your fit together.
Do you know what’s more effective than just telling your kids to go be active? Setting the example yourself! As in most things, kids follow actions better than verbal directions. Your influence has more of an impact than you think. You are ultimately responsible for setting them up with a healthy lifestyle.

So let them see you make fitness a priority. Start an exercise plan yourself so they can see you in action. They may even want to join in! Try to involve them by going for walks, bike rides, or hikes together. Bonus: This doubles as family time. You’ll create positive memories they’ll remember for a long time to come.

Any way you look at it, it’s clear that getting active is nothing but beneficial to the body and brain. Our bodies were meant to move, so get to it!

LJ Kunkel is a health/wellness writer, mom of 3, and fitness trainer. She keeps her head on straight by working out, dancing around shamelessly, and enjoying lots of chocolate (also shamelessly). See more from LJ at fitmixmom.com.

Originally published on parent.com.