Physical Activity Gives Kids Stronger Muscles — And Brains

Including exercise in your child’s daily routine can make her a better student. Learn what you can do at school and at home so she can get the benefits of daily physical activity.

Did you know that there is something that you can do for just 20 minutes a day that can make your brain more active and boost learning?

What if I told you that it was as simple as putting on some walking shoes and strolling swiftly around the block?

That’s all we need to do to engage our brains and, more importantly, to engage the brains of our kids. The simple action of undertaking 20 minutes of walking results in better outcomes in reading, spelling, and math.

Research on Physical Activity and Learning

The data is clear: Healthy students are better learners. A collection of studies about the effects of physical activity on learning, compiled by the CDC, shows that there are a range of positive academic outcomes for students who include physical activity in their daily routines: better classroom conduct, increased ability to focus and retain information, and higher levels of academic achievement, to name just a few. The collection of studies demonstrated that no matter the context in which the physical activity occurred — whether it was during recess, P.E., in class, or after school — there were some positive outcomes and no negative outcomes reported.

And, while fitness correlates to better test scores, the National Institutes of Health reports that it has added physical benefits, including better sleep (a priceless commodity at my house), higher self-esteem (ditto), and a healthy weight.

With stacks of research pointing to the benefits of children leading active lives, many parents are looking for ways to incorporate exercise into their kids lives, whether this happens at school or at home.

Finding the Time

If you, like me, are thinking that this is absolutely wonderful news, and yet are wondering how in the world you are going to find an additional 20 minutes (or 60 minutes, which is the amount that kids really need each and every day to be healthy), then you are in luck. There are numerous ways that kids can incorporate physical activity into their routines, both in and out of school.

Initiatives for Schools

Three successful programs that help schools implement physical activity into a daily routine are BOKS, Let’s Move! and SPARK (Sports, Play, and Active Recreation for Kids). Each relies on using the existing school setting as a place where physical activity happens throughout the school day.

BOKS

BOKS, which stands for Build Our Kids’ Success, is a partnership between Reebok and a mom who knew the importance of physical activity for learning and was determined to do something about it. The main BOKS program consists of 40 minutes of fun, non-competitive physical activity before school. BOKS also has a program called BOKS Bursts, which integrates “a short, two-to-five-minute burst of physical activity into the school day.” The BOKS curricula are available for free online, and those interested in facilitating the program can be trained in-person free of charge at the Reebok headquarters in Canton, MA.

Here’s what one teacher says about BOKS:

My third graders love BOKS! Apart from the physical benefit, BOKS builds a special community of respect. The children who participate in BOKS have a more advanced sense of respect and good sportsmanship.

Let’s Move!

Even though schools have been paring down traditional physical education class time, there are many additional options for physical activity available to parents and families. If your school has limited the time for physical activity and hasn’t taken steps to increase students’ exercise, then you can be the catalyst for change. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative calls on parents, teachers, administrators, and even interested community members to be champions for active schools. The Let’s Move! Active Schools campaign has free resources and a robust, school-specific Action Plan to get kids moving. It also has dozens of grants that schools can apply for if they are on a tight budget and need help buying equipment or implementing curricula.

SPARK

Each SPARK program is “a coordinated package of highly active curriculum, onsite staff development, extensive follow-up support, and expert-selected, content-matched equipment.” Created in 1989, SPARK has been monitored, tested, reviewed, and improved. SPARK programming for physical education classes as well as before-, after-, and during-school time. SPARK is fee-based; a grant-finder tool is available on the website to help schools offset costs. The SPARK program is highly regarded and has received numerous awards — take a look at the extensive list here.

One Assistant Superintendent enthused:

From where I sit, you couldn’t find a more appropriate name than SPARK for this impressive program. Since bringing it to my site four years ago, I have watched it “spark” energy and enthusiasm in a staff that used to dread the thought of teaching one more P.E. class. … They have developed a sense of confidence in an area that used to scare many. That confidence has served to “spark” a love for P.E., both for staff and students. I see it in the faces of children; I watch it in the efforts of my teachers.

Other Options

If your school can’t or won’t pursue any of these programs, there are still smaller-scale school-based initiatives that will help kids get lots of exercise. Here are a couple of options for which you can advocate at your child’s school:

  • Encourage short breaks. Having kids take several short breaks, in which they stretch or walk, throughout the school day can help improve their on-task behavior. You can show this study to school administrators to demonstrate the positive effects of taking physically-active breaks.

  • Advocate for recess. The American Association of Pediatrics has noted many of the academic benefits of keeping recess in schools. You can use the organization’s research to encourage your child’s school to leave time for kids to play.

For more ideas, you can use fantastic Institute of Medicine free resource, which details how to carve out the recommended amount of physical activity during the school day.

Initiatives at Home

If your child is one of the many who loves hockey, soccer, swimming, lacrosse, or any other sport, then chances are that the recommended hour of physical activity comes pretty easily for her. You can just sign your child up for an intramural or neighborhood league.

If, on the other hand, organized sports are not her thing, there are many opportunities for children to incorporate physical activity outside of school — even if they have busy schedules. Some ideas parents can explore are:

  • Walking your child to school if the distance allows it
  • Going on a nature hike or walk over the weekend
  • Playing game of tag or hopscotch
  • Jumping rope as a family
  • Walking your dog around the neighborhood or visiting nearby neighbors

By prioritizing physical activity and working with our schools, we can ensure that our kids get the movement they need to succeed.

Sources:

The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

BOKS: Give Kids a Great Start. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from BOKS

The Crucial Role of Recess in School. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from The American Association of Pediatrics

Do Short Physical Activity Breaks in Classrooms Work? (n.d.). Retrieved July 8, 2015, from Active Living Research

Exercise and Sleep. NIH MedlinePlus, the Magazine. (n.d.). Retrieved July 8, 2015, from NIH

How Much Physical Activity Do Children Need? (2015, June 4). Retrieved July 8, 2015, from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Let's Move! Active Schools. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from Let’s Move!

SPARK Physical Education Curriculum. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from SPARK PE

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