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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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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