Getting moving: how increased cardio in children improves academic performance

by Heidi Ho

In the United States, most children are in school for six to seven hours a day, and sometimes their only movement is walking to the lunchroom for a mere 30-minute break. Access to physical activity outside of school is also constrained, often by economic and racial inequities that limit opportunities for recreation. There isn’t always a chance for students to get their heart rates up.

For over a decade, a link between physical activity and academic performance has been understood, which is just one of the reasons why researchers and policymakers focus on exercise for youth. But many aspects of this positive connection are not well understood, particularly the mechanisms by which cardiorespiratory fitness influences performance, and how it’s different across school subjects. Marc Yanguez, postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern’s SoundMind Collaboratory, is working with the support of Charles Hillman, associate director of psychology and co-director of The Center for Cognitive and Brain Health, to figure out what pathways link physical activity and academic performance.

“We know from our prior work that there’s a relationship between physical activity, brain function, structure, cognition and — in the case of kids — academic performance,” Hillman says. “But we know there’s other factors involved.”

The factor that Hillman and Yanguez wanted to understand was executive functioning (EF), the mental processes required to do tasks effectively. They posited that aerobic exercise increases EF in children and is responsible for improved academic performance. In a 2024 study in Psychology of Sport and Exercise spearheaded by Yanguez, the team found it was right.

Demystifying Executive Functioning

EF includes three components: inhibition, working memory and cognitive flexibility. When someone is driving a car, they use all three. They adapt to different scenarios on the road, which is cognitive flexibility. They block out distractors, which is inhibition. And they extract memories to remember how to operate a vehicle, which is working memory. They can do things like turn down the stereo, check blindspots before switching lanes and choose the right exit — without crashing.

Yanguez’s experiment tested the relationship between aerobic fitness and EF by measuring how children with a range of fitness levels quickly and accurately responded to stimuli. He uses the analogy of dance to explain why speed and accuracy are good ways to measure performance.

“When you learn to dance, you are slow in your movements, but as you practice, you are faster and more precise. You can have two dancers do technical movements equally well, but as soon as you do it faster, one of the two is going to be considered better at dancing, right?” he said.

The study broke students into fitness categories, measured by maximal oxygen consumption during a cardiorespiratory fitness assessment. Then, all students completed a series of games that tested for inhibition and cognitive flexibility.

To test for inhibition, there were two activities: Children had to virtually watch a school of fish while focusing only on a singular fish, and they had to press a button when they saw an image of a lion but not when they saw a tiger image. The goal of each of these tests was to put students in scenarios where they had to block out distractions and focus on a specific object.

As for cognitive flexibility, the participants were told to move their arms left, right, up or down based on colorful shapes presented to them. They also had to order letters and numbers. Each switch from task to task had a cost: slower and less accurate responses.

The takeaway was that the differences in performance on these tests corresponded with aerobic fitness, and the link between the two was the increased EF.

“Exercise, through enhanced fitness, has positive outcomes…enhanced blood flow in the brain [exercise] impacts cognition,” says Yanguez.

For this study, Yanguez also wanted to see how intelligence — which he describes as abstract reasoning skills and stored knowledge — plays into the relationship between physical activity and academic performance. In his prior research, he had not taken it into account.

Less malleable than EF, intelligence is “difficult to improve through training and experience,” says Yanguez. In other words, throughout your life your intelligence is less prone to change than EF.

But when intelligence —which was measured by IQ — was accounted for, the relationship between physical activity and academic performance stayed constant.

“It suggests that the fitness-academic achievement model in our relationship is independent of IQ, but dependent on executive function,” says Hillman.

There were some findings from the study that Hillman says he can’t yet explain. The physical activity-to-academic performance relationship was strongest with math and moderate with reading, and fitness had no effect on spelling.

Targeting Interventions

One of the main reasons Yanguez and Hillman conducted this study was to support schools to enact policies that would improve the success of students.

One school that has already seen success, and that has served as inspiration for the team, is Naperville Central High School in Illinois. Positive outcomes from interventions put in place 20 years ago were captured in a 2013 Illinois Public Health Institute report. The study found that Naperville Central High School’s Learning Readiness P.E. class improved students’ grades significantly in literacy and algebra. For example, in 2009, Learning Readiness P.E. classes that paired reading classes with P.E. resulted in a 22% increase in algebra scores.

“Naperville schools will take their kids out and make them walk around the school yard before taking standardized tests,” Hillman says.

Because the Naperville analysis was not a comprehensive cognitive and academic performance test, Yanguez is interested in exploring more questions: Do certain exercises improve EF more than others? How much influence does student motivation have on EF?

Yanguez’s next goal is to conduct a longitudinal study. Collecting EF and physical activity data while students go through a structured P.E. curriculum over an extended period of time might show the causal relationship that he believes is there.

Given that less than a quarter of young people ages 6-17 do not meet the daily 60 minute exercise recommendation made by the U.S. Department of Health, the researchers hope their recent study will influence practices that encourage people to take work breaks and get moving. Most importantly, Yanguez says, people should discover new physical hobbies that not only make their biological heart happy, but their emotional one, too.

Story from the Science Media Lab.

Last Updated on July 1, 2024