Exercise in schools can help children pay attention in the classroom

Exercise can benefit a child’s ability to concentrate in class, a study of more than 1,000 Aberdeen schoolchildren has found.

Researchers at the Universities of Aberdeen and Leeds discovered that children who undertook moderately intensive exercise performed significantly better in tests of concentration than those who hadn’t done the exercise.

The team say their findings - published in the journal Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology- have implications for the debate about exercise in schools.

Dr Justin Williams, Senior Lecturer in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Aberdeen said: “This is the first and largest study of its kind and our results show that 15 minutes of exercise in the classroom improved performance on cognitive tests conducted later in the day.

“While further research is required, this could change the way we think about exercise in schools. As well as being important in tackling obesity and promoting a healthy lifestyle, exercise can help with learning.

“It also raises the question of how much the often-reported decline in children’s attention span in modern day life stems from a lack of physical exercise.”

Professor Mark Mon-Williams, formerly of the University of Aberdeen and now at the University of Leeds, said: “Lots of research in elderly participants has shown that exercise helps the brain to function. This study is the first to show that exercise has similar benefits in children.

“How exercise helps children to concentrate is not yet clear and future research is needed to determine the brain mechanisms involved. But however exercise works, this research is important because it suggests that exercise in schools might actually help academic learning.”

The study was conducted in six Aberdeen schools* involving pupils in primary classes four to seven.

It was prompted after local PE teachers asked the University of Aberdeen child health scientists whether physical activity could make a difference to school performance.

The researchers devised a study to find out whether an exercise that could be practically delivered in the classroom could make a difference to academic performance.

The PE teachers created a series of aerobic exercises lasting 10 to 15 minutes that were just vigorous enough to get the children beginning to sweat and a little breathless These exercises, which included running on the spot and hopping to music, were then taught to class teachers.

Meanwhile, to measure concentration in a realistic classroom environment, the researchers came up with a series of mental tests that were recorded onto CD and played to the children at the end of the school day while they were still at their desks.

It instructed the children to do tasks such as adding up numbers; recalling numbers in reverse order; judging whether statements were true or false and remembering the last word in a sentence, and putting a series of items in order of their size eg pencil, table, whale.

PhD student Liam Hill, who ran the study, said:  “Our study showed that physical exercise benefits cognitive performance within the classroom and the degree of benefit depends on  circumstances.

“Most people have found that a brisk walk helps when sustained concentration is required. Children spend a lot of time sitting within a classroom so perhaps it is not surprising that they benefit from a burst of vigorous exercise.”

Vice-Convener of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee Councillor Martin Greig said: "The conclusion of the research confirms what many have long believed about the significance of physical activity for learning. The carefully conducted research gives support to incorporating an appropriate amount of exercise into the school day.

“There are clearly educational advantages in providing a varied and interesting learning environment that responds to the individual needs of pupils. Physical activity is an important element in promoting a positive and healthy learning experience, whether in the form of simple exercises, sport, dance or other more structured recreational choices."

*The schools involved were Broomhill, Mile-End, Dyce, Cults, Peterculter and Kingswells primaries.

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