Health & wellness

Does cutting gym time hurt students’ academic performance?

As school districts slash gym time in favor of more academics, researchers have been conducting studies to see whether this has had opposite the intended effect: causing grades to drop rather than rise. A review of the latest research published today in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that the amount of physical activity kids get correlates with their academic performance but also concluded that better studies are needed to measure the actual impact of exercise on academic performance.

The Danish researchers found that only two of the 14 studies they reviewed were high quality in terms of how they were designed and conducted. Most were population studies drawing correlations between, say, participation on sports teams and grade point averages.

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One study of 10th-grade boys -- which the researchers found to be of moderate quality -- found that those who played football or basketball had poorer math and reading scores than those who participated in other sports such as track or tennis. If the link is real, I think the finding most likely means that non-academically inclined boys are more likely to gravitate toward basketball or football rather than indicating that these two sports cause a decline in academic abilities.

In general, studies that simply measure a child’s participation in organized sports don’t provide a complete enough picture of overall physical activity and may “underestimate the relationship between physical activity and academic performance,” the study authors wrote. Recent research indicates that many school athletes still aren’t meeting physical activity recommendations of 60 minutes a day set by the federal government.

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One solution? Get schools to add gym back into the school day. Only 18 percent of Massachusetts schools offer daily gym classes, compared with a 30 percent national average. That’s despite the fact that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools provide 150 minutes per week of formal gym classes in elementary schools and 225 minutes each week for high school -- which works out to 30- to 45-minute daily gym periods.

Getting schools to increase gym time may not happen, though, without stronger studies that provide firm evidence that exercise not only helps fight childhood obesity but also hones math and reading skills. Brain researchers have shown that exercise stimulates the brain to release a chemical called brain-derived neurotropic factor, which they believe helps increase gray matter improving the brain’s function and performance.

At the moment, school administrators can make the argument that the findings are mixed in terms of how much extra exercise really helps.

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The review in today’s Archives journal described one study that the researchers rated as moderate quality, which found that adding 15 minutes of classroom-based activities like jumping jacks and stretching several times a week for 16 months didn’t improve test scores in those who tried the program compared to those who did not. But another study -- which they rated as higher quality -- found that students who were randomly selected to have an additional 90 minutes of exercise every week wound up with higher grades than those who weren’t.

“More high-quality studies are needed,” wrote the researchers, to bolster the case for extra physical activity programs in schools and to determine the ideal dose necessary to keep academic performance high without taking too much time away from the academic classes themselves.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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