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Schools Have Been Cutting Back On Physical Education, But Study Shows Fit Kids Perform Better Academically

Ground-up recycled tire crumbs cover this playground behind the K-2nd grade elementary Dickerson School in Chester, N.J., Wednesday, June 3, 2009. The government is reconsidering whether fake turf in playgrounds and sports fields made of ground-up tires could pose health hazards to kids after concerns expressed by some Environmental Protection Agency scientists, according to newly disclosed internal documents from the EPA.

CREDIT: AP/Mike Derer.

A report by the Institute of Medicine in 2013 highlighted that schools were reducing the time kids spent engaging in physical activity, but a new study shows that fit kids are more likely to perform better academically, particularly in math.

The report found that due to economic burdens, leading to teacher layoffs, and an absence of equipment, schools were cutting back on physical education classes and recess time for kids.

According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, kids need at least an hour of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity every day. Even before the cutbacks, though, physical education classes only provided 10-20 minutes of such exercise per gathering.

There are currently no federal requirements regarding physical activity for students, but the Institute of Medicine recommends that physical education classes should be at least 30 minutes for students in elementary school and at least 45 minutes for middle and high school students.

It was also recommended that schools provide additional exercise time through recess and classroom activities that involve physical activity.

While many schools have cut back on physical education classes and recess time, a study published last month in PLOS ONE, a scientific journal within the Public Library of Science, found that kids who are more fit do better in school.

Researchers examined kids ages nine and 10 by asking them to complete standardized math and reading exams and test their endurance a treadmill. They also underwent MRI scans of their brains.

By having the kids complete the mental and physical tests, researchers were able to determine that those who ran for longer periods of time had thinner sections of gray matter in the front of their brains. Such a result indicates more brain maturation.

The brain normally goes through a thinning period during adolescence, as the connections that are not needed are thinned out, according to Charles H. Tillman, one of the study’s authors. Fit kids may be further along in the process, as revealed from the outcome of the study.

Kids who ran longer also achieved higher results on the math test. The area of the brain where the thinning of gray matter occurred, known as the frontal cortex, is involved in working memory, which assists in solving math problems.

This study was the first to investigate kids’ cortical brain structures and how fitness and gray matter thickness relate to educational success, but results from previous studies have suggested that changes in brain structure also affect reading comprehension and other academic areas.

Matt Wotus is a reporter for Generation Progress, covering health and health care. Follow him on Instagram at @mawotus_27.

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