Fit Kids Do Better on Memory Tests than Unfit Classmates


Dr. Wendy Walsh: The other day, I walked out of a meeting with an executive from The Sports Club/LA chain of health clubs with a smile on my face. The meeting was one of deep gratitude wherein we thanked the company's founder for contributing a large portion of our school's P.E. budget.

My kids go to a small public school in an economically diverse community, and seven years ago, I made it a mission to help create a physical-education program that would be a shining example of a partnership between business and parents. In keeping with their goal to get the nation fit, The Sports Club/LA -- partly supported by volunteers-- contributed money for equipment and a part-time coach for seven whole years. Unforeseen bonus: During that period, our kids' test scores rose!

As NBC launched its "Education Nation" promotion this week, I wondered if they would address the lack of P.E. in our schools. The week kicked off with a thirty-minute interview with President Obama on "Today," wherein he talked about the dismal state of public education in America. Obama called for more educational funding tied to specific reforms, including making the school year longer and upgrading teachers. "We can't spend our way out of it," he said. "I think that when you look at the statistics, the fact is that our per-pupil spending has gone up during the last couple of decades, even as results have gone down." 

Our spending has gone up, while academic outcomes have gone down? How interesting! Now a new study published in the Journal of Brain Research has uncovered one contributing factor: the cutbacks in physical education. Apparently, when budget-strapped school districts sought to tighten their belts, the first thing that got tossed tended to be "nonessential" classes such as art, music and P.E. 

The study found that 9- and 10-year-olds who were physically fit tended to have a larger hippocampus (the part of the brain important for learning and memory) and that they do better on memory tests than their less-fit peers. This was the first study to use oxygen-efficiency tests and MRI's to measure brain size. The participants' relational memories (i.e., their abilities to remember and integrate a range of information) were also tested. 

Bottom line: The kids with good oxygen efficiency (i.e., strong lungs and hearts) had a bigger hippocampus and scored better on tests than their less-fit friends. So while politicians look for better ways to spend their money, one idea might be physical education. Another might be for more communities and local businesses to adopt their schools and create programs like ours.


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