How well children perform in the classroom is determined by how physically active they are, says researchers.
According to the researchers from VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam, exercise helps cognition by increasing blood and oxygen flow to the brain.
The study said this could be because physical activity also reduces stress and improves moods, making children more likely to behave in the classroom.
The aim of the study was to look at the relationship between physical activity and academic performance because of concerns that pressure to improve children’s school marks could mean they spend more time in the classroom and less time doing physical activity.
Philomene Ndambuki, a Child psychologist in Nairobi said that academic performance cannot be treated in isolation of all other tenets of growth and development.
These development tenets include physical, social, emotional, moral and intellectual areas of development.
“Both the home and the school must play a positive role in maximising the development tenents. Depending on the natural or biological endowment of each child, they should perform better in their academics when the tenets are observed,” said Dr Ndambuki adding that the development tenets must synchronise positively.
She said that physically fit students are less likely to miss school, partake in risky behaviors, get pregnant, or attempt suicide, which are all associated with better outcomes in school
According to Dr Ndambuki, academic performance is used broadly to describe different factors that may influence student success in school.
These factors include cognitive skills, attention or concentration in class, memory, verbal ability; academic behaviours like conduct, attendance, time spent on a task, completion of homework; and academic achievements like standardised test scores or grades.
John Ndirangu, a pediatrician at Kenyatta Hospital, Nairobi, says physical activity improves circulation, increases blood flow to the brain, and raises endorphin levels, which all help to reduce stress, improve mood and attitude, and calm children. Thus physically active students may also do better academically.
“Exercise could benefit cognition through increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain, which increases norepinephrine hormone levels and endorphins,” said Dr Ndirangu.
Norepinephrine works alongside adrenaline to give the body sudden energy in times of stress, known as the “fight or flight” response.
Endorphins are substances formed within the body that naturally relieve pain and are involved in controlling the body’s response to stress.
“These increased levels lower a child’s stress levels and improves their mood, whilst increasing growth factors that help create new nerve cells and support synaptic plasticity.”
He said that regular physical activity builds healthy bones and muscles, improves muscular strength and endurance, reduces the risk for developing chronic disease risk factors, improves self-esteem, and reduces stress and anxiety.
The study researchers identified 10 observational and four interventional studies for review.
Twelve of the studies were conducted in the United States, one in Canada and one in South Africa.
Sample sizes ranged from 53 to about 12,000 participants between the ages of six and 18 years.
“Children who learn to participate in sport also learn to obey rules. This may mean they are more disciplined and able to concentrate better during lessons,” said Amika Singh, the lead researcher and author of the study.
The period of follow-up varied between eight weeks and more than five years.
Two of the studies reviewed were rated as being of high quality, the study says.
Researchers said they found strong evidence of a “significant positive relationship” between physical activity and academic performance using those two studies as evidence.
The researchers said more studies examining the exact relationship between physical activity and academic performance were needed.
“People always ask, ‘How much exercise do I need to do to get an A?’ We don’t know that but we would like to find out,” said Dr Singh.
“Children should be active for at least one hour a day, for health reasons. But we also need to look at other things, like what kind of activities they should do, when they should do them and for how long.”
No study in their systematic review used an objective measure of physical activity. Many of the studies required children or their parents to note down how much exercise they were doing.