If you’re a parent home-schooling your children during this coronavirus pandemic, you may want to make sure they get short exercise breaks. New research has found that 15 minutes of physical activity in the middle of a school day tends to improve children’s attention, memory and overall well-being.
The exercise should be self-paced, however — done at an intensity determined by the child, not by an adult.
“Schools, pupils, teachers and parents may worry that taking time out of lessons to do physical activity is not beneficial to classroom learning,” says Colin Moran, the study’s senior author and an associate professor of sports science at the University of Stirling in Scotland, in a released statement. “However, the evidence shows that pupils are more alert, feel better, and pay better attention after self-paced physical activity when compared to just sitting.”
Plenty of past research has linked physical activity with improving cognition and academic performance in adults, but the evidence that it does the same for children and teens has been inconsistent. And in studies that did find evidence of a cognitive benefit for young people, it wasn’t clear if those gains were due to the intensity of the physical activity or from just taking a classroom break.
Moran and his colleagues decided to fill that research gap. Their findings were published recently in the journal BMC Medicine.
To collect the data for their study, the researchers enlisted the aid of teachers around the United Kingdom who participate in a U.K.-wide initiative called “The Daily Mile.” Launched in 2012, “The Daily Mile” involves giving children 15-minute classroom breaks (in addition to physical education classes) throughout the day to run, jog or walk around their school grounds.
A total of 5,463 students from 332 schools took part in the current study. The children had an average age of almost 10 years and were almost evenly divided between boys and girls. On three different days spread throughout a week, teachers led these students in three types of activity, each lasting 15 minutes:
- A self-paced run or walk activity during which the children ran or walked at a pace of their own choice.
- An intense running activity that used a “bleep test” to set the pace for each child.
- A “control” activity in which the children went outside to sit or stand (preferably, to sit).
Immediately before and within 20 minutes after finishing each activity, the children were given computer-based tests that measured their well-being and cognitive skills, including attention and memory.
The study found that the students’ well-being and working memory scores improved more after the self-paced exercise breaks than after the intense running activity or the control activity of sitting/standing outdoors. The students also reported feeling more positive after the self-paced exercise breaks, which the researchers say may explain why their working memory scores showed greater improvement. (Some research suggests that a positive mood triggers a greater release in the brain of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is known to play an important role in working memory.)
The students’ well-being and cognitive scores after the intense exercise break were about the same as after the no-exercise break — with one exception. The scores for alertness were lower after the session of no physical activity.
The study found that gender, age and socioeconomic status made no difference in the findings. Children who were more physically fit, however, tended to demonstrate greater increases in alertness after the self-paced exercise break, compared to their less-fit peers.
Limitations and expectations
The study comes with caveats. For example, the researchers did not control for the order in which the students completed the three physical activity tasks or what the teachers said when they were instructing the students to complete them. Nor did they control for known factors that can affect well-being and cognition, such as diet and sleep.
In addition, the study was conducted with British students. The findings may not be applicable to children in other countries, including the United States.
Still, the findings are interesting, particularly for what they appear to suggest about the importance of letting children set their own exercise pace.
“Overall, we found that doing 15-[minute] self-paced outdoor activity was more beneficial for school pupils’ wellbeing and cognitive performance in comparison to sitting/standing outdoors, or running to near exhaustion,” Moran and his colleagues conclude.
“The long-term health benefits of [physical activity] coupled with the acute cognitive benefits, which support learning, make such [physical activity] breaks worthwhile,” they add.
FMI: You can read the study in full on the BMC Medicine website.