Kids who exercise while learning show better knowledge retention

Combining recess and math class sounds like a child’s dream come true, but a recent study suggests combining exercise and the classroom could help children’s academic achievement. 

Recently a study out of the Netherlands looked at the effect physical activity can have on learning. 

The study divided 499 grades two and three students into two groups – one that would receive lessons while exercising and the other would learn while sedentary. The special lessons occurred three times a week for 22 weeks per year. 

Over two years, the study found that children who were active during their lessons had better math and spelling scores than those who were taught while they sat in their desks. The difference in scores was equal to an extra four months learning, the study said. 

A similar study from the United States, known as the Physical Activity Across the Curriculum trial (PAAC), also found physical activity in the classroom led to greater academic achievement for students. 

Here in Canada, a spokesperson with the Toronto District School Board said because exercising while learning isn’t part of the Ontario curriculum, the method is only used when a staff member wants to implement it him or herself.

[Some kids just learn better while in motion. / Thinkstock]

Proof in motion

John Currie, the principal at Toronto’s James S Bell J. M. Sports & Wellness Academy, has done just that. 

Currie said six years ago his school completed an experiment of their own and saw similar results to the Dutch study. 

In 2010, Currie brought four treadmills and four recumbent exercise bicycles into a special education classroom of eight students, many who had poor attendance and had been disengaged with academics. 

Each morning the students would exercise for 20 minutes. Throughout the day, they would be able to use the bikes whenever they pleased. 

“With that group, which kind of became our little pilot study, we found huge improvements in their academics, specifically in language and mathematics. They all went up between two and three grade levels throughout the course of the year. Their behaviour was much better and their attendance also improved dramatically,” Currie said. 

Since that experiment, the school has added two or three spin bikes to all grades six, seven and eight classrooms. 

Students can choose to ride the bikes during lessons or during independent study, Currie said. 

“You’ve got that student who is when they’re forced to sit at their desk, they’re always fidgeting, their legs are always moving, they’re always touching things. They just need that movement. Typically those are the students that will gravitate to the bikes at the back of the class and what we find with them is that it helps them to focus better,” Currie said. “And they like doing it. So it’s good for them and it’s helping with their focus, which in turn helps their academics.”

A different learning style for everyone

While not all students learn the same way, Currie said there’s a certain segment of students who benefit from having the bikes in the classroom. 

“I don’t think you can paint every student with the same brush, but there’s certainly that group of students that when they have the opportunity…to hop on to a treadmill or hop on to a bike, (we) would definitely see benefits with that group,” he said. 

Along with the equipment in classrooms, students at James S Bell J. M. Sports & Wellness Academy also participate in more scheduled physical education than the 100 minutes per week deemed necessary by Ontario’s Ministry of Education, with students in kindergarten to grade five receiving 150 minutes while grades six through eight receive 180 minutes per week. 

The TDSB has two other Sports and Wellness Schools like Currie’s as well as two Health & Wellness Academies. But the TDSB spokesperson said James S Bell J. M. Sports is the only school he’s aware of that consistently incorporates exercise into the classroom.