The Powerful Link Between Fitness & Learning in Children

Dad and Kids laugh and have fun on SwingSesh after a workout

Physical fitness has long been associated with better health and increased longevity. However, recent research has shed light on another important aspect of fitness that is especially important to us as parents: fitness has a profound impact on our children’s learning. The connection between physical activity and cognitive development is a burgeoning field of study, revealing the myriad ways in which fitness can enhance our child's ability to learn and excel academically.

What parent doesn’t want to know more about the remarkable relationship between fitness and learning in children if it means we can give our kids a leg up in school and life?!

Body and Mind: The Interconnectedness of Fitness and Learning

Author John Ratey of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, describes a revolutionary physical education program implemented in Naperville, IL called Zero Hour PE. The core idea of Zero Hour PE is a new type of physical education class scheduled before first period with an emphasis on fitness instead of sports. The kids are encouraged to find an activity they enjoy – anything from rock climbing to aerobic dance. The goal is to stay between 80-90% of their maximum heart rate and students only compete with themselves. The objective of Zero Hour PE is to determine whether working out before school gives these kids a boost in reading ability and academic performance. Zero Hour PE has been a resounding success; this program not only turned Naperville District 203’s 19,000 students into the fittest in the nation but also, in some categories, the smartest in the world.

After this impressive case study, Ratey goes on to explain how exercise improves learning on three levels:

  • it optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation;
  • it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information;
  • it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus

Immediately following exercise, your brain is primed for maximum learning. ZeroHour participants who had literacy class immediately following gym class performed better than those who had it in the last period of the day. Ratey goes on to elaborates on how exercise and fitness give the brain a boost and improve cognitive abilities; improve attention span; and reduce stress:

Brain Boost & Cognitive Abilities
One of the most compelling arguments for the connection between fitness and learning is the positive impact exercise has on brain health. Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, delivering vital oxygen and nutrients that promote neuronal growth and function. Exercise also stimulates the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which play a crucial role in mood regulation and cognitive performance. These neurochemicals are responsible for enhancing focus, attention, and memory, all of which are fundamental to effective learning. Physical fitness has been linked to improved cognitive abilities in children, including problem-solving skills, creativity, and critical thinking. Regular exercise challenges the brain by requiring coordination, strategy, and adaptability. As children engage in physical activities, they develop these cognitive skills, which can be transferred to their academic pursuits. Moreover, physical fitness contributes to the development of executive functions such as impulse control and working memory, which are crucial for successful learning in school.

Attention Span
One of the challenges educators often face is maintaining students' attention during lessons. Fitness can help address this issue. Studies have shown that children who engage in regular physical activity exhibit improved attention span and reduced symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Physical activity appears to "reset" the brain, making it more receptive to learning and enhancing a child's ability to focus on tasks.

Stress Reduction
The demands of modern education can be stressful for children, leading to anxiety and decreased learning capacity. Exercise, however, is a natural stress reliever. Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, which act as mood elevators and stress reducers. When children engage in regular fitness routines, they are better equipped to manage stress, leading to a more relaxed and conducive learning environment.

The Importance of Physical Education Programs & Recess

As the Zero Hour program proved, physical education (PE) programs in schools play a vital role in promoting fitness and enhancing learning outcomes. These programs not only teach children the importance of physical activity but also contribute to their holistic development. Through structured physical activities, students are supposed to learn teamwork, discipline, and perseverance; all skills that are transferable to the classroom and beyond. However, with budgetary restrictions, Physical Education programs are often the first to get cut. With ever increasing pressure for educators to increase scores on standardized test, education systems are focusing more on ways to increase classroom time in vain attempts to increase learning. According to Claire Nader in You Are Your Own Best Teacher!: Sparking the Curiosity, Imagination, and Intellect of Tweens, only 4% of elementary schools, 7% of middle schools, and 2% of high schools have daily PE the entire school year.

For younger students, recess on the playground serves as an effective way to get physical activity throughout the day. But much like PE, recess time is similarly on the decline: in the last two decades weekly recess time has declined by 60 minutes on average. Elementary schools are averaging only 25 minutes of recess per day despite most studies correlating higher recess times with higher academic skills and higher test scores. Although recess isn’t the only method of achieving physical activity in school, it provides a consistent time for kids to naturally experience exercise through play.

The Power of Fitness and Our Role as Parents

We all know we’re living in an obesity epidemic that impacts more than 30 percent of children, making it the most common chronic disease of childhood. Part of the problem is that kids’ fitness and activity levels are down across the board. Here’s the kicker: studies show that fit kids score twice as well on academic tests as their unfit peers. The California Department of Education has consistently shown that students with higher fitness scores on the FitnessGram test also have higher test scores. The evidence is more than compelling: fitness is essential for well-being, learning, and performance.

This is true not only for our kids, but for us as adults as well. So what kind of exercise can we do to get our kids’ brains primed and ready for their day of learning… and our own brains primed for a good day of work? Scientists don’t necessarily have the perfect exercise plan to maximize learning, but they know that a combination of aerobic exercise and complex activity have different, but complementary, beneficial effects on the brain. Your workout regimen – and your children’s activities – should include both skill acquisition and aerobic exercise. Your school might not have a Zero Hour PE class, but you can impart the same benefits for your kids with a morning workout! What better way to start the morning than a 30 minute session in the backyard on your SwingSesh?

Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans

In general, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition recommends that preschool-aged children be physically active throughout the day and youth ages 6 to 17 years participate in 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity every day of the week. They recommend the 60 minutes include 1) aerobic activities that make children breath hard and sweat, 2) muscle-strengthening activities on at least 3 days of the week, and 3) bone-strengthening activities on at least 3 days of the week.

Parents play a pivotal role in fostering a love for physical fitness in their children. By leading an active lifestyle themselves, parents set a positive example and encourage their children to follow suit. Statistics show that children who exercise regularly are likely to do the same as adults. Studies also show that children of active parents are nearly 6 times more likely to be active than those of inactive parents: make no mistake, your influence is strong. Family activities that involve physical activity, such as hiking, biking, or working out together in the backyard, can be enjoyable ways to promote fitness within the household. Prioritize time for physical activity and ensure that it is integrated into your child's daily routine.

The evidence is clear: fitness has a profound impact on learning in children. Physical activity not only promotes brain health and cognitive development but also enhances a child's attention span, stress management abilities, and overall well-being. By incorporating fitness into daily routines, fostering a love for physical activity, and supporting robust physical education programs, we can empower our children to reach their full academic potential while enjoying the many benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle.

Want to learn more about physical fitness in children and your influence as a parent? Here are some resources and studies we recommend checking out:

Summary: A high level of physical activity at ages 9 to 18, especially when continuous, significantly predicted a high level of adult physical activity. 

Summary: Activity in adolescence predicted activity in adulthood in both males and females. The risk for adult inactivity was significantly lower for those who were physically active in adolescence.

Summary: This umbrella review proved the effectiveness of resistance training on physical fitness (e.g., muscle strength, muscle power) in youth under age 18 on a high evidence level.

Summary: An important risk factor for childhood obesity is having parents who are obese. Children with 2 obese parents are 10 to 12 times more likely to be obese.

Summary: Physical activity decreases through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood: Parents of young children are particularly inactive, potentially negatively impacting their children’s activity levels. More active mothers have more active 6-year-olds

Summary: Children of active mothers were 2.0 times as likely to be active as children of inactive mothers and the relative odds ratio of being active for the children of active fathers was 3.5. When both parents were active, the children were 5.8 times as likely to be active as children of two inactive parents. 

Summary: Parents with dependent children are clearly more inactive than non-parents. There appears to be a decrease in total number of physical activities people are involved in during the childbearing years and an increase in obesity. 

Naomi Leeman

Naomi is co-founder and COO here at SwingSesh. With years of experience in landscape architecture and urban design, Naomi enjoys helping people make their spaces functional and beautiful! When her husband Brad had the idea to combine a home gym with a backyard playground, she was on board immediately and hasn't looked back since!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

.spr-badge[data-rating="0.0"] { visibility:hidden; display: none; }