Physical Activity Boosts Brain Power and Academic Performance in Kids and Teens

Physical Activity Boosts Brain Power and Academic Performance in Kids and Teens

Kids were born to play and run around. A team of international researchers has found compelling reasons to make sure kids and teens have plenty of opportunities to exercise their growing bodies. Physical activity boosts brain power and gives them what they need to thrive academically.

We know that exercise is vital for growing bodies, but it’s also crucial for growing brains. According to the experts, kids need plenty of opportunities to run around, even if it means they have less time in structured activities.

The 24 experts were from eight countries and came from different academic disciplines. They applied their minds to the best available research on physical activity during childhood and adolescence and they came up with some remarkable findings. The findings have been published in a consensus statement published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

‘Over the 30 years we have been researching the health and well-being of young people, we have seen the accumulation of pediatric data across physiological, psychological, environmental and social issues. This 21 point consensus statement reflects the importance of enhanced physical activity, not just in schools but sports and recreational clubs, with the family, and even for those children with long-term illness. At all levels of society, we must ensure that enhanced physical activity is put into practice.’ – Professor Craig Williams, Director of the Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre, Sport and Health Sciences, University of Exeter.

What counts as physical activity?

Physical activity includes anything that gets kids moving. It doesn’t have to be structured sports or team activities. Ant time spent playing, running around in the park, riding a bike or walking the dog will help them flourish.

Why is physical activity so good for growing brains?

In children and adolescents aged 6-18, physical activity nutures them in the following ways:

It builds their cognitive functioning:
  • Physical activity before, during and after school will boost academic performance.
  • A single session of moderate physical activity will immediately boost brain function, cognition and academic performance.
  • Brain power and academic performance are boosted when children master fundamental movement skills.
  • Time spent in favour of physical activity, even if it means time away from lessons, will not come at the cost of good grades.
It nurtures their engagement, motivation, and psychological well-being:
  • Physical activity will boost their self-esteem;
  • Nurture relationships with peers, parents and other important adults in their lives such as teachers and coaches.
  • An environment that supports their autonomy and is caring and socially supportive will enhance their motivation, their behaviour in relation to physical activity, and their general well-being.
  • Regular and organised physical activity training helps to build important life skills (interpersonal, self-regulation) and core values (respect, social responsibility).
It supports a culture of inclusiveness.
  • Activities that are sensitive to culture and context create opportunities for social inclusion. This is important for all children, including those from different backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientation and physical capabilities.

What can we learn?

The researchers found that participation in physical activity is influenced by gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, skill level, disabilities and socioeconomic status.

The benefits of physical activity for growing bodies and growing brains is profound. There is an obvious need to make sure that all kids and teens have access, regardless of their demographics, skill level, and social, cultural and physical qualities. The researchers suggest that the way to make this happen is to provide environments that make this easy for all kids. This would include bike lanes, parks and playgrounds which have all been shown to nurture participation in sports and physical activity for all kids and teens.

Kids and teens have so many wonderful opportunities open to them. The temptation is to provide them with exposure to as many of these experiences as possible. This a great thing, but it is important that any structured non-physical activities don’t interfere with their need for physical activity. Their brains strengthen and grow on physical activity. Give them space and opportunity to move, and watch them thrive. 

6 Comments

Tunisia

Thank you so much for this article. I am hoping to share this with my husband and get him on board. I have also shared this on all of my social media outlets. Thank you for always having thought articles sent.

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Linda at The Linda Life

I suspected that children need to run and jump and pretend – play! – as well as have a sport. It’s not always easy when both parents work but it is essential. Thanks for getting the word out!

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One of our rituals was in the week before Christmas, we’d go shopping and each kiddo would choose a keepsake decoration for the tree. This would forever be their decoration. To make sure we’d remember who owned what (a year is a long time!) I wrote their name and year on the box. The idea is that when they leave home, they’ll have a collection of special decorations for their own tree, plump with throwbacks (‘Oh I remember when we bought this!).

Then of course there was Christmas morning. Santa would leave a note on the table and bootprints on the front path, which smelled remarkably like talcum powder. So magical the way the snow was under the boot and never melted, even in an Australian summer! But that’s the magic of Christmas, right?!

We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year.

It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas, aside from the presents.

They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be a biggie. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with pancakes at breakfast last Christmas. (Ice-cream at breakfast?! Told you Christmas was magical!!). 

If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (remembering reindeer groceries can be so hard sometimes!)

You’d be surprised what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.

What are your Christmas rituals? Let’s share ideas in the comments.♥️
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Because sales are the best, and Christmas is the best, and helping kiddos find their brave is the very best of all! So, to celebrate the end of the year (because truly, it's been a year hasn't it), and to help you settle brave hearts for next year, or night times, or separations, or, you know, all the things, we're taking 25% off books and plushies in the Hey Sigmund shop.

There's no need to enter a code. The books and bundles are already marked with their special sale prices. You'll find them all there - plushies, books, bundles - doing shopping cartwheels, beside themselves excited about helping your young ones feel bigger than anxiety, and shimmy on to brave. 
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It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. 

Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay, and trust in your reaction if things don’t go to plan. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 
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Strong steady breathing will reverse the fight or flight physiology that causes nausea, butterflies, or sick or sore tummies during anxiety. BUT telling an anxious brain to take a strong steady breath will potentially make anxiety worse unless strong steady breathing feels familiar. Practising during calm times will make it familiar. 

During anxiety we’re dealing with their amygdala, and it wants short shallow breathing to conserve oxygen. It doesn’t want strong steady breathing and will work hard to resist this. 

An anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. A few minutes of strong steady breathing each day will set up a strong neural pathway to make strong breathing more automatic and accessible during anxiety. 

In the meantime though, you can do it for them. This is the magic of co-regulation. When you do strong steady breathing during their anxiety, it will calm your nervous system which will eventually calm theirs. You will catch their anxiety, and this will feed into their anxiety. Your strong steady breathing is the circuit breaker. They will catch your anxiety, but they will also catch your calm. Don’t worry if this takes a few minutes (and maybe a few more after that). Anxious brains are strong, powerful, beautiful brains working hard to protect. Breathe and be with. This will open the way for that distressed young nervous system to find its way home. And you don’t need to do more than that.♥️
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Needs and behaviour can get tangled up and treated as one. When you can, separate the need from the behaviour. Give voice to the need - let it find a way to breathe - and redirect the behaviour. 

The need might always be clear, especially if it’s being smothered by angry shouting words. If we stifle the behaviour without acknowledging the need, the need stays hungry. Help usher it into the light by making it clear that you’re ready to receive it. Then wait. Wait for the big behaviour to ease, for bodies to calm, and angry voices to soften - but keep the way to you open. ‘You’re a great kid and I know you know that behaviour wasn’t okay. Talk to me about what’s happening for you.’

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