The Case for Recess

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Recess time and gym have been eliminated from many school programs to make more time for academics, but physical activity can improve thinking and reasoning skills in children.

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There is growing evidence that physical activity enhances brain function and improves thinking and reasoning skills for children -- and adults. Some studies have also suggested that children perform better in school when they have planned periods of physical activity. This idea stands in contrast to how the pressure to provide more time for academics has eroded opportunities for physical exercise during the school day.

At a time when gym and recess time have been eliminated from many school programs and after-school sports and playtime have given way to academic support enrichment, more evidence has been needed to shape school policy.

Past studies have suggested that as physical activity increases school performance and performance on the job improve; but some studies have been inconclusive. With this in mind, a team of researchers recently reviewed 14 studies, 12 from the United States, one from Canada, and one from South Africa. All looked at the relationship between school performance and physical activity.

The studies were varied in size, duration, and population. The sizes of the study populations ranged from 53 to 12.000 participants, and the age ranged from six through 18 years. The children's physical activity levels and academic achievements were followed for as little as eight weeks to over five years.

The researchers found evidence that physical activity improves academics. They noted, "Evidence from the studies included in the present systematic review suggests that there is a significant positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance...."

The researchers offered several possible explanations for the positive effect. It may be that activity increases blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain. It could be that it increases the level of norepinephrine and endorphins, which decreases stress and improves mood, and that the increase in growth factors caused by exercise helps create new nerve cells and supports neurologic development. They also point out that when children participate in sports, they often have better behavior within the classroom and are better able to pay attention to academics.

This report adds to the growing body of literature that supports the need for an appropriate balance of physical activity and study in the school days of our children. It can be found in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Image: Brenda Carson/Shutterstock.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Esther Entin, M.D., is a pediatrician and clinical associate professor of Family Medicine at Brown University's Warren Alpert School of Medicine. She writes for TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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