Parents and teachers have known for centuries that kids do better in school after they've "gotten their wiggles" out or played hard at recess. The benefits of exercise are undisputed and now, studies show there's scientific evidence to support this age-old parenting wisdom—the link between exercise and brainpower.  

A recent article published in the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail reported on an informal experiment performed by a special education teacher about the benefits of exercise on learning.  Before her students participated in certain school assignments, the teacher had them workout on an exercise bike.  Her experiment paid off big time when her students dramatically outscored students in other classes in which exercise wasn't offered.

The teacher's hunch that exercise incorporated into the school day might help kids learn is backed by a growing body of research on the link between the benefits of exercise and improved "executive functions", or the mental skills that help us pay attention, avoid distraction, subdue inappropriate impulses and solve problems to complete a task.  Scientists have previously believed that executive functions were inherited and didn't change much throughout life except with medication.  Now, they're realizing that may not be accurate and that exercise may boost the brain's abilities to perform these functions. 

While many scientists suspect the link between exercise and brain power is due to improved circulation to the brain, researchers at the University of British Columbia think more complex forms of exercise like hockey or tennis might improve executive functions by activating the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for problem-solving and complex thought. Their studies also suggested that kids performed best on tests when they were administered within an hour after exercise that elevated their heart rate.

Researchers at the University of Illinois also link exercise and brainpower and support theories that physical activity increase students' cognitive control and performance on academic achievement tests. Their study emphasized the benefits of exercise in a typical classroom environment. Children participating in testing had a greater ability to block out noise and pay attention to assigned tasks after exercise (in this case, "acute bouts of walking").

These studies add support to the growing argument that physical education, recess and exercise should be part of every child's school day.  The University of Illinois researchers offered these recommendations for including exercise in academic curriculums:

  • Make school playgrounds and exercise activities available before and after school.
  • Schedule outdoor recess as a part of each school day
  • Offer formal physical education 150 minutes per week at the elementary level, 225 minutes at the secondary level.
  • Encourage classroom teachers to integrate physical activity into learning.

For parents facing schooldays with less time allotted for PE:

  • Sign kids up for afterschool sports.
  • Consider walking or biking to and from school or after dinner.
  • Make exercise a daily part of your family's schedule.