Does Exercise Make Children Smarter? The Case For Gym Class


The new school year has just begun! Children across the country are walking down hallways filled with a mixture of excitement and nerves. But do they have a gym on their schedule? What about outdoor recess? PE isn’t just fun and healthy. It actually helps students retain information better.

A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that fitter students are able to retain information better than their exercise deprived peers. The large-scale study examined over 10,000 9- and 10-year-old children and found that the most fit performed better on difficult memorization tasks.

But these aren’t minor differences in data. The evidence shows active and fit students performed significantly better on standardized test scores in English and math. Interestingly, while aerobic fitness predicted success, the weight did not. That means that even the most overweight children would see an academic benefit from running around at regular intervals.

Why is this? The link between fitness and success

gym class benefits

Well, exercise scientists, teachers, and parents have been wise to this phenomenon for years. When kids run around and tire themselves out, they can focus better in classes later on in the day. And, as researchers at the University of Georgia have discovered, exercising for 60 minutes facilitates “specific aspects of information processing.”

Furthermore, A dissertation published this year by Shannon Shook of Walden University found a positive correlation between aerobics and arithmetic. Shook writes that “Based on the findings of the study, physical educators at the local site should advocate for physical fitness and promote the connection between physical fitness and academic achievement.”

Sadly, schools continue to cut P.E. and recess from the school curriculum. This new evidence shows that they should be doing just the opposite. Far from a luxury or sideshow to education, exercise programs are crucial to maximizing academic performance.

“I don’t want to go to school today!”

Milwaukee is reintroducing gym, art, and music classes in an attempt to boost school attendance. Photo: Erin Toner/ WUWM
Milwaukee is reintroducing gym, art, and music classes in an attempt to boost school attendance. Photo: Erin Toner/ WUWM

In addition to the demonstrated physiological benefits exercise has on academic performance, administrators need to consider the intangible benefits of gym class. When you strip curriculum down to core subjects and skills acquisition, school suddenly becomes a dreary place. Kids need to learn math and grammar, sure, but the games of capture the flag in P.E. and sculpting in art class are what children really look forward to.

These less structured, creative activities give students an opportunity to bond with classmates and gives them a much-needed rest between the imposing task of standardized test prep. Those students are more eager to sit still for an hour of English or science after one of goofing around at recess is unsurprising.

After all, Google and other successful companies use wellness programs and other fun incentives to boost morale and increase productivity. If it’s good enough for adults, why wouldn’t the same be true for our kids?

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