One of the powers of play is that it gets us to exercise our bodies as well as our minds. – David Elkind
Childhood is becoming increasingly sedentary. Tragically, many afterschool programs are becoming increasingly sedentary as well. Today, childhood is spent mostly indoors, watching television, playing video games and working the Internet. When children do go outside, it tends to be for scheduled events – soccer camp or a fishing derby – held under the watch of adults. In a typical week, 27% of kids ages 9 to 13 play organized baseball, but only 6% play on their own, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. A child is six times more likely to play a video game on a typical day than to ride a bike, according to surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the CDC (Cauchon, 2005). With the increased focus on high-stakes testing, many afterschool programs are caving to the pressure to improve academic achievement by forcing kids into more seatwork when the school bell rings.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend at least 60 minutes of aerobic physical activity each day, but only 33% of students attend daily physical education, and more and more schools are eliminating physical education and recess (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013).
School-age children and youth spend 8 – 11 hours a day using entertainment media, including TV, computers, video games, cell phones, and movies (Rideout et. al, 2010). Childhood obesity rates are at an all-time high, and TV viewing is a contributing factor to childhood obesity because it takes kids away from more physical activities; leads to increased energy intake through snacking and eating meals in front of the TV, and influences children to make unhealthy food choices through exposure to junk food advertising (Zimmerman, et. al., 2010).
The best afterschool programs include many opportunities for physical activity for the sake of the basic health of the children. For afterschool programs, the undisputed fact that exercise improves the health and development of children on the whole health is more than enough justification to make movement a best practice.
The relation between exercise and overall student health is clear, but in the current educational climate, that is not enough for schools. Today, the relation of physical activity and fitness to academic performance is of special concern to schools that are being forced to justify physical education not just on the grounds of overall student health, but solely on the grounds of academic achievement.
Growing numbers of elementary schools are eliminating recess in favor of more time for reading, writing, and math. Our test-driven curricula are driving the elimination of creative and playful teaching practices in favor of rote learning methods, despite the fact that studies demonstrate that children involved in daily physical education experience show greater academic performance and a better attitude toward school than children who are not (Jensen, 2005).
There are many long-standing, well-documented physical and mental health benefits of physical activity. Many studies have found significant improvement in attitudes, discipline, behavior, and creativity of students following physical activity (Keays, 1995). We know that a correlation exists between physical activity and self-esteem and the desire to learn in children (Tremblay, et al., 2000).
A growing body of interdisciplinary research has documented the beneficial influence of physical activity on brain development and function. Researchers have recently discovered that they can make a human brain grow new brain cells (hippocampal neurogenesis), simply by putting subjects on a three-month aerobic workout regimen (Carmichael, 2007). Evidence from brain imaging studies, anatomical studies, and clinical studies show that moderate exercise enhances cognitive processing, increases the number of brain cells, and reduced childhood obesity (Jensen, 2005).
Research has shown that blood flow to the cortex of the brain is increased following bouts of exercise. More blood flow means more oxygen, more nutrients, and more of something that John Ratey, Harvard Medical School Professor and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain calls “Miracle-Gro for the Brain” – Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).
Regular exercise causes levels of BDNF to build up, which causes the brains nerve cells to branch out, connect, and communicate more efficiently – the processes that underlie learning. Ratey states, “Exercise is like taking a little Prozac or Ritalin. It affects many sites within the nervous system and sets off pleasure chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine that make us feel calm, happy, & euphoric. It is really for the brain, not the body. It affects mood, vitality, alertness, and feelings of well-being.”
There is insufficient data to support the belief that physical exercise raises scores on standardized achievement tests, but a growing number of studies support the idea that physical exercise is a factor that may lead to increased physical and mental health throughout life. Higher grades are associated with vigorous physical activity (Coe, et al. 2006). Physical fitness is positively related to academic achievement in math and literacy regardless of other variables (Castelli, et al., 2007).
In a recent study researchers measured the children’s body-mass-index (BMI) of 259 third and fifth graders, and scored them on classic PE exercises. Then they compared their BMI and physical abilities to their math and reading scores. On the whole, the kids with the fittest bodies also had the fittest brains. Aerobic exercise was shown to improve many aspects of cognition and academic performance. (Hillman, et al., 2008).
We must teach with the body as well as with the brain in mind. Children need to be physically active, and need frequent opportunities for physical motion, yet in this era of standards and accountability, physical education is one of the first subjects to be cut from the school curriculum as non-essential.
Learning that is active and experiential, involving movement, and arousing positive emotions is more effective than disseminating information in a one-way flow from teacher to learner. Since movement of the body engages the brain, it is the wise educator’s trump card (Jensen, 2000a). The evidence is very clear that a strong active body helps build a strong, active brain.
The best afterschool programs value and participate in the physical education process. Afterschool programs that do not include physical activity are shortchanging the brains of their children and their potential for academic achievement.
For breakfast this morning, I had a cold cup of blueberry yogurt and a hot cup of coffee.
Carmichael, M. (2007). Stronger, faster, smarter. Newsweek, Mar, 26, 30-35.
Cauchon, Dennis (2005). “Childhood Pastimes are Increasingly Moving Indoors.” USA Today, 11 July 2005. Retrieved from
Castelli, D., Hillman, C., Buck, S., & Erwin, H. (2007). Physical fitness and academic achievement in third- and fifth-grade students. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29, 239-252. Retrieved at https://bit.ly/1aaBkuS
Cauchon, D. (2005). Childhood pastimes are increasingly moving indoors. USA Today. https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-07-11-pastimes-childhood_x.htm?csp=34
Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Obesity: A Growing Problem. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/problem.html
Coe, D., Pivarnik, J., Womack, C., Reeves, M., & Malina, R. (2006). Effect of physical education and activity levels on academic achievement in children. American College of Sports Medicine. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/JE5XPt
Hillman, C., Erickson, K., & Dramer, A. (2008) Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9 58-65.
Jensen, E. (2000a). Learning with the body in mind. San Diego, CA: The Brain Store, Inc.
Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: Association for supervision and curriculum development.
Ratey, J. (2008). Spark. The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. Little, Brown, & Co. New York: NY.
Tremblay, M., Inman, J., & Willms, J. (2000). The relationship between physical activity, self-esteem, and academic achievement in twelve-year-old children.
Pediatric Exercise Science, 13 312-323. Retrieved from https://extranet.nuorisuomi.fi/download/attachments/3245041/the+relationship+between+physical+activity,self-esteem,+and+academic+achievement+in+12-year-old+children.pdf
Zimmerman FJ, Bell JF. (2010). Associations of television content type and obesity in children. Am J Public Health 2010; 100(2):334—40.