Ingegerd Ericsson of Malmo University in Sweden compared two groups of school children in grades one, two and three as they progressed through to grade nine. One group was given two 45-minute physical education classes a week, while the other received five 45-minute phys-ed classes. Children with motor-skill deficits in the second group also received extra motor-skills training, including exercises to improve balance and coordination (such as jumping over objects or balancing on blocks).
By grade nine, 96 percent of the students in the group that received additional PE classes achieved grades that would allow them to advance to grade 10, while only 89 percent of those in the less active group were eligible to advance. The contrast was especially notable among male students, with 96 percent of the more active group advancing, compared to 83 percent of the control group.
Ericsson hypothesizes that boys need to be more physically active than girls in order to stay motivated and focused in class.
There are a number of theories as to what causes this correlation between physical activity and learning. Ericsson explains that learning to do a physical task could actually teach your brain how to do an academic one: “One reason could be that automatization of motor skills makes it easier for the brain to focus on theoretical learning,” she explains.
Stephen Berg, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and an expert in physical education and early learning, says this study aligns with long-theorized ideas about the ways in which physical activity supports learning. “Physical education is just as important as language arts or mathematics; it’s not a side subject area,” says Berg. Some kids learn kinesthetically, the energy expenditure can help them focus, and their success on the field or in the gym may boost their confidence in the classroom.
He also laments a lack of consequences for Canadian schools that don’t provide an adequate amount of instructed physical activity. According to the 2012 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, an annual document produced by the advocacy organization Active Healthy Kids Canada, as little as 15 percent of students get the recommended 150 minutes of PE per week.
Berg urges parents to talk with their child’s teacher and verify how much PE they are receiving — most schools allocate two to three 20- to 30-minute classes per week, but that doesn’t necessarily happen at every school. “Talk with administration, with other parents and teachers, and attend parent council meetings. Be a voice for your child,” he says.
Signing up for sports-related after-school activities can also be a good fix, but Berg cautions this isn’t an ideal solution — these programs can be costly. Walking or biking to school (in communities where this is feasible) can also increase daily exercise. “It’s not appropriate for children to be sitting for the majority of the day,” says Berg. “Young kids need to move.”
A version of this article appeared in our November 2012 issue with the headline “Get physical” (p. 94). Want to talk to other parents about this issue? Join the Kids Health board in our forums.