The movement kids get throughout the day just might affect their classroom performance.
Case in point: a recent study by the University of Eastern Finland. The research looked at more than 34,000 adolescent Finnish students. Those who had active commutes to school ― like walking or cycling ― were shown to have higher odds of strong academic performance and self-reported confidence in their academic skills. Those who were active in their leisure time also saw huge benefits: Engaging in moderate to vigorous physical activity for as little as 30 minutes a week was associated with 24% lower odds of school burnout. Both leisure-time physical activity and physically active commutes also had a positive effect on whether a student enjoyed school.
Generally, physical activity can help children improve fitness, build strong bones, decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and reduce the risk of certain health conditions. In addition to physical health, students who are active tend to have better grades, school attendance, cognitive performance and classroom behavior.
“Play is very important for many reasons; it stimulates brain development, it enables children to practice the expression and communication of their ideas, feelings and creativity,” Andrea Corn, a licensed psychologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist in Boca Raton, Florida, told HuffPost. “In these formative years, play is more about discovery, having fun and enjoying oneself,” added Corn, who was not involved with the study.
Any type of movement is better than nothing, especially movement that brings your kid joy. But if you’re looking for a little guidance, there are some specific physical activities that come with big perks. Here are three to try, according to experts:
Walking can be an optimal activity for students, whether they use it as a transportation method for school or they do it in their free time.
According to studies of participation in physical activities, the Committee on Physical Activity and Physical Education in the School Environment and Food and Nutrition Board found that students who walked at a moderate intensity ― enough to get your heart pumping but you’re not straining ― had significant improvements in performance that required the ability to focus on a single task.
This can be useful: Since the classroom can have many distractions, students have to balance specific tasks, hold and retain information, and follow class procedures.
In the new Finland study, higher exercise intensities, including walking at a moderate or vigorous pace, had a positive effect on memory and learning. This level of physical activity enhances neurogenesis, or the growth and development of neurons formed in the brain. Leisure-time walking or other exercises were more likely to enhance self-esteem and confidence in students. Additionally, school-related mental health concerns were also improved — an important factor in the well-being and learning ability of students.
“Students who experience burnout are likely to be overly stressed due to an excessive or unrelenting heightened mental and emotional burden placed on themselves,” Corn said. “One way to break out of that rut would be to engage in some physical exercise to get the blood flowing, the heart pumping and wake up the endorphins in the brain, which in turn would lead to enhanced energy, stamina and perhaps even surprising oneself with invigorated thoughts, the onset of a more positive mood and decreased fatigue.”
A study published in 2021 found that riding a bike helps to promote exploration of a kid’s environment and independence, and the development of emotional and social skills, which can all translate into classroom advantages. Children who cycle spend more time participating in moderate to vigorous physical activity, habits that continue into adulthood.
When riding a bike, “various skills are stimulated … memory and cognition, attention and alertness, as well as a recognition of one’s body and what it can and cannot do,” Corn said.
According to the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences at the University of Bristol in England, children who walk or cycle to school have higher levels of cardio-respiratory fitness compared with children who took passive transportation, such as a car, bus or train.
Activity like riding a bike “triggers hormonal releases, including endorphins that promote our brain health ― reducing stress and improving sleep ― and cognitive function, enhancing the ability to think,” Dr. Alan Chu, a psychiatrist and associate professor of applied sport psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, told HuffPost. “Also, it makes sense that when kids do not feel overwhelmed, they are better able to absorb and retain new information they learn.”
Sports can have a different positive effect.
In the Finland study, researchers found team games improved coordination, motor skills and executive function when stacked up against aerobic activities, such as walking or cycling. Executive function skills, including memory and inhibition, are important in the development of academic skills such as math proficiency, according to the researchers.
“Just like learning a subject in school, learning a sport requires a young athlete to pay attention, focus and concentrate as rules need to be learned so games are fun and enjoyable,” Corn said.
Healthy competition and social motivation have been driving forces behind learning, improving motivation and performance in the classroom. In a 2015 study by the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, experiments that involved physical competition with other players resulted in faster reaction times and increased attention.
Performance in team games can also improve mental health, Chu said. That can also have a domino effect on the classroom, as well as in other areas of life.
“For students, mental health contributes to their ability to focus and memorize the information they learn,” Chu said. “In contrast, mental health challenges can affect many areas of students’ lives, negatively impacting their motivation and energy levels to learn, relationships with friends and family members, quality of life, and academic performance.”