Exercise, academics go hand in hand
It might be news, but it's hardly a surprise.
Michigan State University researchers spent time analyzing data gathered on 312 middle school students. They considered standardized academic scores, similar to Pennsylvania's PSSA test; report card grades in core classes, like math and language arts; performance in physical fitness tests, like number of push-ups completed and time in the shuttle run; and general fitness indicators, such as body fat percentage and flexibility.
The data revealed what you'd expect. The middle schoolers in the best physical shape not only did better on standardized tests, but also had better report card scores.
These results held true across the board for boys and girls, for students who had gone through puberty, and for those who had not.
Equally as expected were the results of an earlier study done at MSU that showed exercise before testing helped students diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
In this study, researchers had 40 subjects between the ages of eight and 10 either walk fast on a treadmill for 20 minutes or read while seated for the same amount of time. Half of the subjects had been diagnosed with ADHD.
After 20 minutes of either activity, short tests in math and reading, similar in style and content to the longer, standardized ones used by states to assess achievement, like the PSSA test, were given. All of the subjects, including the ones previously diagnosed with ADHD, performed better on both tests after exercise than the sedentary activity.
Equally as important, however, was another component to the study. The researchers had all subjects play a computer game after testing. The computer game was simple but loaded with visual stimuli.
Those with ADHD often lose sight of what is important in a situation where they are bombarded with stimuli. They also tend to tire of a task faster.
Yet the subjects with ADHD in the study showed better focus during the game as well as the ability to refocus after a mistake far better when they had exercised prior to all the testing as compared to when they had not.
Matthew Pontifex, an assistant professor of kinesiology at MSU involved with the study, feels the results clearly show that students, especially those with ADHD, need more physical activity, but that "there hasn't been a whole lot of evidence that schools can pull from to justify why these physical education programs should be in existence."
Now there's some.
James Pivarnik, also a MSU professor of kinesiology who co-authored the MSU study of middle schoolers, said, "Your fitter kids are the ones who will do better on tests, so that would argue against cutting physical activity from the school day."
So far, the theme of the column has been research that produced the expected. Now it's time to consider decisions that do not.
The general movement in our local area, state, and nation in education has been to shortchange sometimes to reduce or even eliminate altogether physical education.
Sometimes this occurs when school expenditures need to be decreased. That one of the first moves is to reduce or eliminate PE is not a failing in any single component of the educational hierarchy as much as it is an indicator of how little our culture values physical fitness.
Other times, PE is sacrificed as a way to create more time to prepare for standardized tests those same tests where research has shown exercise and enhanced fitness improves scores.
Crazy, isn't it? Call it crazy, call it ironic, but isn't it time to call somebody and tell them it's time to fix this?
Since a column like this should not only highlight problems but offer solutions, here's a start.
Most school districts are faced with increasing costs and stagnant revenue, so hiring more PE teachers can't be an immediate solution. Neither can lengthening the school day since that also costs money.
But if physical fitness really is tied hand in hand to academic performance, why couldn't some academic time be reallocated?
At the junior high where I work, students presently receive about 90 minutes of PE for 30 consecutive school days and then none for the remainder of the year. They also receive instruction every day in the four major core classes: math, language arts, science, and social studies.
If once every two weeks one class period of each of the core subjects was devoted to exercise, the time that these students would be physically active in school would increase by 23 percent. If physical activity replaced one core class every week instead of two, physical activity in school would increase throughout the year by 37.5 percent.
While having core subject teachers lead and supervise the exercise is not ideal, it is not unusual either. Substitute teachers filling in for an absent PE teacher do not need to be certified in PE, and core subject teachers cover for absent PE teachers from time to time.
If you feel this change is too dramatic to be wholesale, why not have selected schools throughout the state pilot the program? If standardized test scores and report card scores improve as found in the MSU study then it could be implemented statewide.