How Fitness Benefits Students
Sports, Recreation, and Wellness Contribute to Success
The connection between mind and body is often given an important place in adult wellness programs, yet for children, that connection may be even more important. Elementary schools nationwide have reduced or eliminated recess times, and some public school districts have cut back on physical education classes as a way of reducing budgets. All in spite of overwhelming evidence from multiple studies showing that physical fitness is vital not only to children’s bodies, but also to their minds.
Dr. Trent A. Petrie, co-author of a study by the University of North Texas that was presented to the American Psychological Association, said, “Cardiorespiratory fitness was the only factor that we consistently found to have an impact on both boys’ and girls’ grades on reading and math tests … This provides more evidence that schools need to re-examine any policies that have limited students’ involvement in physical education classes.”
From a 2009 survey of high school students conducted by the Seminole County Youth Commission, students said their major concerns were drug and alcohol use, body image, and depression. Participation in sports and other physical activities has been shown to improve outcomes in all of these areas. In fact, physical fitness has been repeatedly shown to produce a wide variety of benefits for kids. It is evident that regular physical activity and general fitness impacts all aspects of student’s wellbeing, behavior, and performance.
A study of nearly 12,000 public school students in Nebraska found that, regardless of their weight, students who were aerobically fit did better on the state’s standard math and reading tests than aerobically unfit students. And an Illinois study found that fit students outscored unfit students on memorization tasks by 15 percentage points. Poor health also leads to poor attendance, which would also affect learning. Such studies have been repeated many times over the last two decades, and the correlation between physical fitness and academic excellence appears consistently.
The authors of a study published in Journal of School Health in January 2009 noted that, at the time, the direction of causation was unclear. They suggested that the findings might show either that fit kids do better in testing, or that high academic achievers choose to be more fit. But subsequent studies have showed the former is certainly the case. A 2012 study that tracked students in West Virginia public schools over three years found that most of those who improved their health also improved their test scores.
An Active Living Research survey of multiple research studies found that “Almost immediately after engaging in physical activity, children are better able to concentrate on classroom tasks.” One of the programs examined by ALR, the Action School in British Columbia, assigned some students who were performing below grade level to a physical activity program. Those students were more likely to see improved test scores than similar students not assigned to the program.
The ALR report also notes that the effects of activity were greater when the children’s activity was aerobic, like running, than when the activities were resistance exercises like sit-ups.
Team sports are usually associated with social benefits such as leadership, teamwork, and self-discipline. But such collaborative skills can also be developed in individual sports when students have peers participating in the same activity, and in physically active hobbies like hiking, dance, or martial arts. Common pursuit of goals often leads students to encourage and support one another. Participation in activities with their peers leads to camaraderie and development of new friendships.
A University of Michigan study found that physically active middle school students not only showed greater leadership skills, but also greater empathy, which is the ability to imagine situations from another person’s perspective. Empathy is necessary to healthy relationships in families, schools, teams, and in the workplace. It is therefore an important social skill for kids to develop.
The process of setting goals and working to achieve them is essential to succeed in most physical activities, even those that are not competitive. Building those skills in early childhood will help kids succeed at upper levels of education as well as in the workplace as adults.
Discipline and self-motivation are also developed in the pursuit of sports and other physical activities, and have wide-ranging ramifications for success in every area of life.
Regular physical activity is critical to improving and maintaining children’s overall health. Kids in physical activity studies see improvement across every measurement of wellness, including heart and lung function and blood sugar levels. Although many in society focus on weight, studies increasingly show that activity produces health regardless of weight. In her book Secrets from the Eating Lab, Traci Mann reports that overweight people who are physically active are more healthy than underweight people who are sedentary. Activity, not weight, is the key to health.
And overall health in the body is critical to health of the brain. The FITKids study, performed in the Urbana School District in Illinois from 2009 to 2013, randomly assigned students to either a fitness program or to a waiting list. Children in the program not only showed improvements in their memory and overall health, but scans of their brains before and after the program showed increased brain activity, while in students who were on the waiting list, brain activity declined.
Physical fitness can boost children’s emotional health in numerous ways. Setting, pursuing, and achieving goals boosts self-esteem. Mastering an art form such as dance or a sport like swimming also boosts feelings of self-worth. Confidence is often produced when students pursue active recreation or sport, especially when they can measure their progress, such as hiking longer distances or achieving a new belt level in martial arts.
Regular exercise has been shown to combat depression, which is especially important for teens, who are at higher risk than younger children. With rates of teen depression increasing in recent years, this becomes an even greater concern. Teen athletes also have a lower risk of suicide than non-athletes.
Children who participate in sports and physical recreation activities learn to deal with both success and failure, which prepares them for many aspects of life in their schools, communities, and future workplaces. The combined benefits of physical activity produce well-rounded children who are more resilient and confident.
Parents and educators need to understand the correlation between physical activity and academic performance, and encourage children to excel on both sides of the equation. If schools are not providing children with appropriate levels of physical activity, parents need to ensure the students get their exercise in some other way.
Added Benefits of Fitness for Girls
According to a report from Active Living Research, female students who both enrolled in physical education and participated in vigorous physical activity had significantly higher grades than students who were not engaged in any physical education. Furthermore, among 5,316 students in grades K through 5, the frequency and duration of physical education class were positively associated with standardized test performance among girls—but not boys. This relationship may have been attributed to a lower baseline level of fitness for female students, which shows that the girls may have had more to gain from physical education participation.
Girls who participate in sports are less likely to have an unplanned pregnancy than girls who don’t. Self-esteem, body image, and confidence also improve when girls are physically active. The benefits of physical activity in youth pay off in adulthood, as women who played sports in their youth are less likely to develop breast cancer, osteoporosis, and other illnesses.
Despite the clear benefits of physical activities, only about one-third of girls participate in sports at school, compared with half of boys. The opportunities are there, but girls are not being encouraged to take advantage of them. The Women’s Sports Foundation reports that although young boys and girls participate in sports in equal numbers, after age 14 girls drop out six times more often than boys. The foundation attributes this to girls not being supported in their sporting efforts. To boost girls’ participation, the foundation urges parents to take girls to see women’s sports events. In Central Florida, for example, members of the new Orlando Pride women’s soccer team serve as excellent role models for female athletes, as many of them are also playing in the Olympic Games this summer.
Economist Betsey Stevenson of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania examined girls’ sports programs nationwide, and found that the improved academic performance of female athletes translated to better employment outcomes. This is in line with findings from the Women’s Sports Foundation that the benefits of team sports, especially leadership and teamwork skills, translate to better performance in the workplace. The WSF notes that top-level female executives usually participated in sports when they were young. Reporting on Stevenson’s study, the New York Times quoted her as saying, “It’s not just that the people who are going to do well in life play sports, but that sports help people do better in life.”
When we think about physical fitness in the education context, we often focus on recess and physical education classes. But there’s much more to children’s fitness than those things. Anything that keeps kids moving, whether it’s bike riding or playing Pokémon Go, will contribute to their physical fitness.
The World Health Organization, in its report “Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health,” said, “Children and youth aged 5–17 should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous- intensity physical activity daily.” The organization also recommends resistance exercise to enhance muscular strength three times a week. That need not mean signing your kids up for a gym membership. The report’s authors note that physical activity includes “play, games, sports, transportation, recreation, physical education, or planned exercise, in the context of family, school, and community activities.”
Whatever choices your family makes for increasing activity levels, remember that if your children currently have sedentary habits, any program of physical activity should be entered into gradually to prevent injury. Start with 10–15 minutes a day of light to moderate activity, and work up to the recommended 60 minutes. If your children are obese or have health concerns, consult your pediatrician before beginning a fitness program.
Whether participating in school sports, club sports or a community league, sports offer great opportunities for kids. Team sports like soccer, basketball, and softball teach important skills like leadership and teamwork. But individual sports like gymnastics, track, and swimming offer similar benefits. Even when competition is one-on-one, kids usually learn and participate in groups. That fosters teamwork and mutual encouragement.
Competitive sports participation does come with an important caveat: don’t let kids get so caught up in the competition they stop enjoying the game. Dr. Peter Nieman, in his report “Psychosocial Aspects of Physical Activity,” noted that “Athletic competition may become destructive when the contest becomes linked to self-worth, personal integrity and the virtue of the players.” Furthermore, Nieman says, “Socially desirable behaviors such as friendliness, generosity, and cooperation are inconsistent with physical activities that emphasize winning.” Parents with children competing in sports should therefore work with students to develop those skills in other arenas, such as faith communities or volunteer work.
Many sports and recreational activities provide the recommended level of physical activity, whether or not children enter competitions. Running is one example of a physical hobby that can be started with very little investment and which need not be competitive. Others activities include dance and martial arts. Although competitions in these activities are available, they are not usually necessary.
Specialized children’s gymnasiums like My Gym, which has several Jacksonville locations, provide age-appropriate fitness training for young children. First Coast YMCA offers many youth fitness activities and school programs for children of all ages. Some yoga studios offer kids’ classes specially designed for each age group.
The best way to get kids moving is to make sure it’s fun. Recreational activities that encourage physical activity can include gardening and bike riding. Nature hikes and canoeing can involve the whole family. The benefits of physical activity for children are magnified when their parents also participate. This strengthens family bonds and improves relationships. Check with your city or county parks department to see what options are available in your area.
Kids’ activities should be seen as play, not as a chore. Keep it fun by letting kids explore all their options, so they will see physical activity not as something they have to do, but as something they want to do.