Gym Class Builds Brains

Our kids need gym, and more exercise outside of school, to do their best work

We have all heard the scary statistics by now. Nationwide, about 32% of American kids ages 2 to 19 are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While the physical effects of too little exercise and too much bad food are well known, the impact of poor fitness on academic performance doesn't get as much attention. Our kids need gym, and more exercise outside of school, to do their best work in the classroom.

Recent studies of the effects of exercise on kids' brains reveal some amazing, clear evidence of the importance of working out. In a 2010 Illinois study, 9- and 10-year-olds exercised on a treadmill, and were classified into high, low, and medium fitness groups, depending on their performance. The most fit kids performed best on a test that was administered after the treadmill session. Other research has come up with similar results before, but this study took it one step further. The kids' brains were then scanned with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). It turned out that the kids who were in the best condition had measurable physical differences in their brains. The hippocampus, which coordinates learning and memory, was larger in the kids in the fittest group. So were their basal ganglia, which govern ''executive control,'' the ability to make decisions and coordinate your thoughts and actions. They were all similar in socioeconomic level and background, so researchers are confident it was exercise that accounted for the differences in test performance.

Aerobic exercise releases a factor in the brain that protects brain cells, helps them make more connections to other brain cells, and even fosters the creation of new brain cells -- an action many people thought impossible just 25 years ago. It is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The proof of its effects is exciting to brain researchers, who think exercise could hold the key to battling ADHD, depression, dementia and a whole array of conditions.

This promising news from the research world is one thing. The way we manage our kids' need for physical activity is quite another. In the current economy, many school districts have had to make painful cuts. It always seems to be art, music and gym on the chopping block first. One could argue that none of these subjects is expendable. Well, I could. But the notion that gym is non-academic should be revisited in light of the latest scientific research. PE should be acknowledged as a way to boost those all-important math and reading scores on standardized tests. It should be celebrated as a way to help our kids focus and make good decisions. And -- oh, yes -- it could help whittle away that 32% who are overweight.

Until the world begins to value exercise as much as it does standardized testing, what can we do? The CDC recommends that kids get 60 minutes of exercise every day. How many days a week do your kids go to PE? On the other days, what do they do for exercise? If PE and organized sports have been cut in your school district, your family may have to take up the slack.

Keeping kids active doesn't mean forcing them to participate in league sports. In fact, some say kids don't get enough active time in those sports. They spend a lot of time waiting for their turn to play. Find things your kids love to do, whether it's skating, biking, tackling a climbing wall or running around in circles. If they like an activity, they'll stick with it. Make sure that they observe you getting exercise, too. Seeing parents out for a jog or heading to the gym on a regular basis reinforces the notion that exercise is a part of daily life. If your kids learn that at their school, lucky them. If not, they will have to learn it from you.

Martha Pickerill is a health writer at and former editor of TIME For Kids.



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