The association between physical activity, cognitive function and academic performance in children is compelling. Research tells us that schools need to spend more time on physical education, include longer periods for recess, and provide more opportunities for students to get up and move around in the classroom. How can we achieve these objectives in a typical school day?
Physical activity is often associated with cardiovascular or aerobic exercise. These activities often require students to change clothes (or at least shoes) and move to another location (the gym or outside). The result is what teachers and administrators call “lost time”.
As an alternative, particularly in the classroom, schools should consider motor or coordinative exercise. A recent study[i] compared cognitive and memory performance among children randomly assigned to one of three groups: cardiovascular exercise (CE), motor training exercise (ME), and control (CON). The participants were 9 to 10 year olds that took part in 45 minute sessions, three times per week for ten weeks. Students in the CON group attended assisted homework sessions while the CE group participated in running and running-based activities and the ME group participatedcAin motor training (balance, coordination, spatial orientation). Following the intervention, the cognitive performance of both the CE and ME groups improved greater than the CON group; however, the ME group improvement was larger. In addition, the ME group alone showed significantly higher scores on memory performance than the CON group.
Does this mean we need to change direction? No. It means we have more options. There are many easy activities that can be done in a classroom to develop balance, coordination, and spatial orientation. For example: Have students stand next to their desks. Ask them to lift their left leg in front of them. Instruct them to raise their arms out to their sides for balance. If they can do that, tell them to use their right hand to touch their left foot and then return to having their arms at their sides, without lowering the left leg to the floor. Repeat 5 times then switch legs. There will be quite a range in students’ ability to do this!
Motor activities are easy to find online and, due to their less intensive nature, may be easier to incorporate into the daily life of a classroom. This, in addition to strengthening our PE programs, and offering increased opportunities for active play at recess sets our children up for success. Physical activity – in the forms of both motor and cardio exercise – can and should be a natural part of the school day.
[i] Flora Koutsandreou, Mirko Wegner, and Henning Budde, “Active Voice: Exercises that Emphasize Motor Skill Factors Are Better for Improving Cognition in Children,” ACSM Sports Medicine Bulletin (September 6, 2016). http://www.multibriefs.com/briefs/acsm/active090616.htm.
Lauren Finn earned her Masters and PhD in Education Policy from the University of Maryland. She is a certified Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist as well as an Active Learning Specialist.