When you think of back-to-school season, you may imagine kids sitting at desks, pencils sharpened, ready to focus on math and reading. But what if the key to kids doing well in school is actually to get them outside and moving?
We know that exercise benefits kids’ physical health, but new evidence shows that it also has a positive impact on their academic performance and prevents school burnout.
Researchers at the University of Eastern Finland examined data collected from over 34,000 adolescents in the 2015 School Health Promotion study cohort, which included almost half of all eighth- and ninth-graders in Finnish comprehensive schools. Their findings, published on July 24 in the European Journal of Public Health, showed that the effects of physical activity differed according to the type of activity.
Researchers looked at two common types of physical activity: “active school transport,” as in walking or biking to school, and “leisure time physical activity” that was “moderate to vigorous,” such as participating in sports. Both kinds of exercise showed positive benefits.
“In our study, active school transport was associated with higher odds of high perceived academic performance and self-reported competency in academic skills. Moreover, walking or cycling to school was linked to higher school enjoyment,” Juuso Jussila, a doctoral researcher at the University of Finland and one of the study’s authors, told HuffPost.
Leisure time physical activity (i.e. sports) had an even bigger impact on students’ well-being. In addition to stronger school performance, which was more pronounced in mathematics, “adolescents who engaged in leisure-time physical activity for 4 to 6 hours a week had nearly 50% lower odds of experiencing school burnout compared to their physically inactive peers,” Jussila said.
While even modest amounts of physical activity had a positive impact, more exercise yielded greater gains. Students who engaged in active school transport for 10-30 minutes daily showed 30% higher odds of “high perceived academic performance” and “high reading competency.” In comparison, the most physically active students in the study showed 86% higher odds of high perceived academic performance.
Another outcome the study examined was school burnout. Similar to work-related burnout in adults, school burnout was indicated by “exhaustion at school, cynicism towards the meaning of school, and a sense of inadequacy at school,” Jussila said. Symptoms included “feelings of being overwhelmed by the amount of schoolwork or losing interest in schoolwork,” he continued.
Psychologist Jennifer Hartstein, who practices in New York and was not involved with the study, told HuffPost that “burnout is a real phenomenon for students.”
“It occurs when students are managing a great deal of frustration and stress, with little time (or ability) to rest or recharge.” Many students rise early and manage a full day of school, activities, work and family responsibilities. Even on weekends, “they don’t get much time to just breathe, which contributes to feeling overwhelmed and ultimately burnt out,” Hartstein said.
In the Finnish study, active school transport did not have a significant impact on burnout, but leisure-time physical activity did. The odds of school burnout were lower (dropping from 40% to 24%) in students who engaged in leisure time physical activity, and the more time they dedicated to physical activity, the lower the odds. Not only were they less likely to report signs of burnout, they were more likely (90%) to report signs of “high school enjoyment” than those who didn’t engage in such activity (35%).
These findings corroborate those of previous studies. “Studies across the world suggest that physical activity — particularly leisure-time physical activity — improves academic performance and mental health among children and adolescents,” Jussila said.
“Burnout is a real phenomenon for students. It occurs when students are managing a great deal of frustration and stress, with little time (or ability) to rest or recharge.”
– Jennifer Hartstein, psychologist
This particular study looked at physical activity outside of school, but Jussila said there’s reason to believe that exercise in school has similar positive benefits: “Research suggests that in-school physical activity, such as physical education, can be even more beneficial for improving learning and academic performance among youth.”
While the correlation between exercise and improved mental health is well-established, the mechanisms by which this occurs are not well understood. There are plausible neurobiological explanations, Jussila said. “Long-term regular physical activity can increase the brain’s neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to change and reorganize itself. Moreover, even a single bout of physical activity can reduce stress and lead to acute improvements in mood, working memory, attention, and cognitive flexibility.”
Hartstein explained that “movement activates endorphins, which help to create a more positive mood.”
In addition, there is ample evidence that exercise increases the quality of sleep, which we know has an impact on mental health.
In terms of exercise’s impact on academic performance, Hartstein noted: “According to the CDC, and within other research, physical activity does have a positive impact on one’s ability to pay better attention and concentrate better. These two components are key in having solid academic performance.”
With clients, Hartstein said she frequently recommends exercise as a way for young people to manage stress. “We talk a lot about how to regulate emotions most effectively and how to build skills for tolerating distress (which can’t be avoided). One of the skills we talk about is movement.”
In addition to increasing endorphins, movement “can provide a great outlet for releasing challenging emotions and providing a reset,” she explained.
While parents should be aware of the connection between physical activity and mental health, Hartstein warns against forcing kids to exercise or elevating some types of movement over others.
Forcing kids to do something “will just turn the young people off to doing anything out of spite,” she explained.
Adults also need to be open-minded and creative in suggesting activities for their children. “Talk with your child about what might be of interest to them and encourage them to try. They don’t have to be an ‘athlete.’ They can walk, hula hoop, jump rope,” Hartstein said.
“Find ways to make movement fun and start early and encourage it to happen often,” she added. You can be confident that any physical activity your child is engaged in, whether a 10-minute bike ride to school, varsity soccer or modern dance, will have a positive impact.