Moderate to vigorous physical activity helps children’s academic performance, particularly among girls in science.

Exercise is good for the body, mind, and spirit, but a scientific study of this conventional wisdom makes an even better case for getting off the couch. A long-term, longitudinal study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine explored links between physical activity (PA) and academic achievement in adolescents.

The research shows that PA, particularly moderate to vigorous intensity PA (MVPA), produces impressive results, especially for girls studying science. The researchers used a representative sample of about 5,000 children who were part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). The study monitored the health of about 14,000 children born between 1991 and 1992 in the Southwest of England.

The duration and intensity of children’s daily physical activity were regularly measured when they were 11 years old using a device called an accelerometer. Their academic performance in English, math, and science was also assessed.

Overall, more physical activity correlated with better academic performance, with brain boosts for girls in science in particular. Academic performance assessments at age 13 showed similar results, with moderate to vigorous exercise linked to better test scores.

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The researchers hypothesize that “increased MVPA might improve academic attainment in a number of ways.”

“Studies have revealed relationships between PA and relevant cognitive outcomes, such as measures of executive function, as well as studies suggesting that PA might increase time ‘on task’ in class and reduce classroom ‘problem behaviour,’” the researchers wrote. “Furthermore, research suggests that physical fitness is also tied to academic attainment.”

There’s undoubtedly a physiological connection between exercise and academic performance, but the biological link still remains something of a mystery. “A number of suggestions have been put forward for why there is a link such as physical activity increasing time on task in the classroom, or having an impact on self esteem,” says Dr. Josie Booth of the School of Psychology at the University of Dundee in Scotland. “This study does not allow us to answer this question and further work is required.”

What’s more interesting is the connection between girls and achievement in science, a relationship that requires further investigation. “We’re unable to say why the girls benefit most from our findings and why there are more benefits for some academic subjects,” Booth says.

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This study creates an in-depth picture of the physical and mental wellbeing of these children.

“Our study has the advantage of being able to report longer term relationships,” Booth explains. “Other studies which report more recent data demonstrate similar cross sectional relationships, associations of physical activity at 11 and academic attainment at 11, for example.”

The researchers also credit the “large sample size, socioeconomically representative nature of the sample, objective measurement of PA, and longitudinal design” with the study’s level of accuracy.

The benefits of exercise are far-reaching, and not just to boost test scores. “We hope that young people, parents, and policy makers realize that physical activity is not only important for physical health,” Booth says. “We should encourage young people to meet the recommended guidelines of at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily.”

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