Experts have long lauded exercise as a way to keep the brain sharp. However, one new study suggests that it may also be the key to academic success in children, even helping kids with serious behavioral disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), feel more secure and perform better in school.
The scientists, who looked at structured exercise during gym class in the form of stationary bikes, found that the children and teenagers were better able to control their behavior in the classroom if they had the opportunity to exercise that day. Exercise affects neurotransmitters, they maintain, which are chemical messengers, in the brain. When a person exercises, these neurotransmitters help the individual better regulate their mood and behavior.
The students, who biked for 30 to 40 minutes twice a week for seven weeks, helped demonstrate that regular exercise is an important component to help children manage their emotions throughout the day. The participants were up to 50 percent less likely to act out in class, compared to a seven week-period when they took a standard gym class, according to the study. They demonstrated a better ability to manage conflict when it arose in the classroom.
“I am a firm believer that recess be an essential part of a child’s daily activity,” says Indiana University Health pediatrician Dr. Nerissa Bauer. “It’s sad and shocking that this time continues to get whittled away. Play and recess are such crucial components of childhood. They provide an important mental break during the day. Unfortunately, recess is being cut down severely.”
For children with behavioral issues, like the participants of this study, recess is even more crucial. When removing recess is used as a punishment for poor classroom behavior, everyone suffers, according to Dr. Bauer. These children need their recess break more than others. They need the time to blow off steam and rid themselves of excess energy.
Regardless of behavioral issues, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that recess be a necessary break in a child’s day as it optimizes a child’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive development. Children need 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity or play daily, as well as sufficient breaks, to help them mentally decompress.
Recess, along with other classroom breaks helps increase both concentration and academic performance in school. While classroom breaks are determined by the individual teacher, the state of Indiana does not have a general physical activity requirement, but does require elementary schools to provide students with daily physical activity, which may include recess.
“Recess is important for children,” Dr. Bauer explains. “It’s how they learn to navigate their peer relationships, manage conflict resolution and have the opportunity to be in charge of what they want to do. Children are often subjected to our rules and regulations. The time they have for free, unstructured play allows them to take the lead – they can explore, be creative and use their imaginations. These periods of time are taken away when the schools whittle away recess.”
When indoor recess is necessary, movement is still essential. If certain indoor activities will disturb other classes, Dr. Bauer suggests a quieter activity that will still get the body moving, like yoga. “Yoga will not get the heart rate going and make them sweaty, but it’s a nice alternative when kids have recess at different times as it may keep noise down. It’s also great for flexibility and teaching self-regulation skills.”
According to Dr. Bauer, the need for recess should not be downplayed. Active movement provides necessary breaks that allow children to return to the classroom with more focus and the ability to stay on task. Without this, she explains, schools are neglecting a necessary piece of a child’s wellness.
-- By Gia Miller