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How physical exercise increases maths scores!




We’ve all heard, somewhere along the line, that exercise is good for us. Every parent would agree, in theory, that children should be encouraged to be physically active. Yet, few make it a family priority. Here is a study that should provide us with the necessary motivation to get moving!

A group of 171 children, aged between 7 and 11 years, who had a sedentary lifestyle and were overweight at the time, were divided into 3 groups. All of them were transported to sport grounds after school, 5 days a week, for a period of 13 weeks.

During their time at the camp, the first group was kept busy with paper-based games and activities that naturally didn’t involve physical exercise. Group 2 exercised for 20 minutes per day and group 3 exercised twice as long, completing 2 separate 20 minute sessions every day. Activities included running games, skipping rope and modified soccer and basketball games. Children were rewarded when they tried to maintain an average heartbeat of 150 beats per minute.

All 171 of the kids were pre-tested and re-assessed afterwards with regards to reading, math and executive functioning skills.

(Note: Executive functioning refers to a child’s ability to stay focused on a task to reach a goal. Have a look at this video to find out more about these skills.)

After 13 weeks, researchers detected no effect on the children’s reading skills in any of the groups. However, there was a very noticeable improvement with regards to the executive functioning skills, and subsequently also in the mathematical achievement, of the children in groups 2 and 3.

What’s even more interesting, is that children from Group 3, who exercised twice as much, benefitted roughly twice as much, compared to those in Group 2.

Have a look at a screenshot below, taken from the published study. The graph shows how Executive Functioning (black) and Math skills (white) improved agter 13 weeks.


Source: Davis, C.; Tomporowski, P.; McDowell, J.; Austin, B.; Miller, P.; Yanasak, N.; et al.  (2011).  Exercise improves executive function and achievement and alters brain activation in overweight children: A randomized, controlled trial. Health Psychology, 30(1), 91-98.

According to the researchers, exercise has such a remarkable effect because it activates the brain in special ways. They know this because they actually conducted fMRI scans on a number of the children that were involved, to get a glimpse into how their brain activity changed over time.

These findings are remarkable and hugely valuable, considering that the exercise that these kids did was purely physical. The activities didn’t involve special games with complicated rules designed to practise and enhance executive functioning and none of the children received extra math tutoring.  

What an uncomplicated, not to mention cost-effective, way to give our children a boost!

*without extra tutoring

Written by Lizette van Huyssteen
"When we know better... we do better." 

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