Can Exercise Improve Learning?

Learning Tips

At the recent National Association of Head Teachers conference in Liverpool, a former school leader suggested that children’s lessons should combine exercise with study in order to boost academic retention.

Bryn Llewellyn, a former school leader from Yorkshire, proposed a motion which recommended that the union assess and support the introduction of ‘physically-active learning’ in British schools. Speaking at the conference, Mr Llewellyn commented that ‘traditional learning approaches limit educational creativity and academic performance, while also negatively impacting on physical activity and health. Physically active learning combines movement and learning.’ He went on to highlight several studies that have shown how exercise can help children retain knowledge, thereby enhancing academic results.

Mr Llewellyn’s views are not only supported by scientific research, but also personal experience: he runs a programme that encourages students to combine rugby-style physical activity with maths classes. In these sessions, students compete in teams with the goal of picking up ‘tags’, working within those teams to solve mathematical problems using the items they’ve collected.

Why is exercise beneficial for learning?

The dangers of childhood obesity are frequently discussed in the news, and as such many of us are no stranger to the idea that regular exercise can be a remedy for ill health and weight management. The benefits of exercise for children from an academic standpoint may be a less familiar topic, however, though it has long been debated within the educational sector. A 2016 statement published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (which was made by a panel of 24 specialists from eight different countries) commented on the importance of providing adequate parks, playgrounds and safe cycling areas for children, arguing that all forms of physical activity – anything from organised sports to outdoor play – could boost a child’s mental and physical development. Within the statement, the experts indicated that physical activity ‘promotes scholastic performance in children and youth’ and that ‘a single session of moderate physical activity has an acute benefit to brain function, cognition and scholastic performance’.

Whilst more research into the effects of physical activity within the classroom needs to be conducted, there is no doubt that exercise is good for the brain. Studies have shown that exercise stimulates neurogenesis (the process whereby new neurons are created), promotes essential growth of brain cells, and prevents brain tissue loss. A 1999 study into the effects of exercise on mice, conducted at the Salk Institute, is also worth mentioning: this ground-breaking research project proved that well-exercised mice experienced considerable brain growth when compared to their sedentary counterparts. The hippocampus, for instance – the part of the brain connected to memory and learning – was shown to be twice as big. These changes also impacted on the rodents’ ability to learn: those mice that had exercised regularly performed better during a variety of tasks (such as navigating their way through a water maze).

There have been some important studies focusing on children, too. Notable connections have been shown between concentration, reaction time, retention, and physical fitness. For example:

  • In one study, children were asked to memorise places on a map – and physical fitness seemed to have no bearing on how well these were memorised (at first). However, when the children were asked to return to the task the following day, and were tested on how well they remembered what they had learned, those with higher levels of fitness dramatically outperformed the other children in the study. (Raine et al, 2013)
  • In another study, children were asked to view images and discriminate between them based on a variety of criteria. Children with higher levels of fitness were shown to have quicker reaction times, as well as an increased ability to filter out irrelevant information and process relevant facts (Hillman et al, 2005).

Will exercise increase my child’s academic success?

There is no straightforward answer to the question posed above. More research is required into the direct effects of activity within the classroom in order to deduce how powerful the practice can be, and to devise the best method of introducing such. However, there is certainly no evidence that exercise is detrimental – it can only be a good thing.

That said, exercise must be fun in order for children to reap the rewards. Even the study of mice proves this concept: the rodents that were forced to exercise didn’t experience the same progression as those that undertook exercise willingly (the study focused on voluntary wheel-running). It’s therefore crucial that we find ways to encourage children to enjoy aerobic activity: whether it’s through structured, team activities – like a game of football or rounders – or a simple game of hide and seek. Combining elements of play with exercise not only has the ability to enhance a child’s problem-solving skills, but also to increase their creative abilities and help them to find the fun in everyday learning.

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