Physical activity can boost student performance

Going to PE class and recess can be a win-win situation for students.

Physical activity improves kids' fitness and lowers their risk of obesity. And now a government review of research shows that kids who take breaks from their class work to be physically active during the school day are often better able to concentrate on their school work and may do better on standardized tests.

In many schools, physical education classes and recess have been squeezed out because of increasing educational demands and tough financial times.

"Some short-sighted people thought that cutting back on time spent on physical education to spend more time drilling for tests would improve test scores," says Howell Wechsler, director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"But in fact there are a lot of studies that show that more time for PE and other physical activity help improve academic performance."

He and colleagues reviewed 50 studies that examined the effect of school-based physical activity on academic performance. Half of the findings showed positive associations; half showed no effect, but virtually none of the research showed any negative impact, Wechsler says.

Among the specific findings, released Wednesday:

•Recess can improve students' attention and concentration and ability to stay on task.

•Increased time in PE classes can help children's attention and concentration and achievement test scores.

•Short physical activity breaks of about 5 to 20 minutes in the classroom can improve attention span, classroom behavior and achievement tests scores.

•Participation in sports teams and physical activity clubs, often organized by the school and run outside of the regular day, can improve grade point average, school attachment, educational aspirations and the likelihood of graduation.

The government's physical activity guidelines recommend that children and teens do an hour or more of moderate-intensity to vigorous activity a day. The Institute of Medicine advises that at least 30 minutes, or about half the daily physical activity, be done during the school day.

"Only 17% of high school students are meeting the goal of 60 minutes a day," Wechsler says. "We still have a long way to go."

How can schools get kids to be more active without breaking their budgets?

"Recess and in-class physical activity breaks are not costly, and a number of schools have found ways to adjust their schedules so they can offer more time for physical education," he says. "They also can make arrangements with community-based programs to offer after-school physical activity programs."

Charlene Burgeson, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a group of physical education and sports professionals, says, "Sometimes it doesn't take more money as much as more creativity and imagination."

In some communities across the country, parents and volunteers walk and bike with kids to school, she says.

"Recess supervisors can be trained to inspire active play. The physical education teacher can help classroom teachers design active breaks so kids get up and moving and are ready to learn."