Brynn Ford walks on the treadmill while listening to a class lesson at her West St. Paul, Minn., school. (Photo/Trisha Marczak)
Fourth-grade student Kevin Killion listens attentively to his daily class lesson, all the while walking at a moderate pace on a classroom treadmill.
“It gets oxygen in your brain,” the fourth grader told Mint Press News. “I feel like I get a lot of oxygen so I can go back to work and work better.”
Killion is among a generation of learners who are not only being taught the importance of homework and regular study patterns, but also the vital roles exercise and movement play in academic success.
Despite federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) standards that have reduced the time elementary students spend in physical fitness classes and recess times, reports emerging regarding the importance of physical activity to academic success are slowly changing the classroom structure.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), students in elementary through high school should participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Yet in 2011, just 29 percent of high school students met that suggestion, with just 31 percent enrolled in a physical education class. That’s down more than 40 percent from CDC statistics from 1991.
Nationwide, more than 60 percent of students in elementary and middle school are not participating in any organized physical activity in their time outside of the classroom, according to the CDC.
Deb Flynn’s fourth-grade classroom is set up to incorporate exercise and movement into a daily routine. Desks are replaced by exercise equipment and tables are spread throughout the room. Students don’t have assigned seating — they move around freely.
Flynn is a firm believer in the importance of movement on the developing mind. Aside from a classroom that promotes movement, she often takes her students out for a run along the building, an exercise she says leaves her fourth grade students with focused minds.
“They love it all … and I know it works,” she said.
Research shifting in favor of movement
Research published recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate incorporating physical activity in the classroom does improve academic performance.
The research produced by the CDC took more than 50 studies into consideration, half of which showed a correlation between physical activity and improved academic important. The other half showed none. However, none of the studies showed physical activity as having a negative impact on academic performance.
“Some short-sighted people thought cutting back on time spent on physical education to spend more time drilling for tests would improve test scores,” Howell Wechsler, director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health for the CDC, told USA Today. “But in fact there are a lot of studies that show that more time for PE and other physical activity help improve academic performance.”
In 2009, Dr. Romina Mariel Barros published a report in Pediatrics indicating that just 15 minutes of exercise a day could make the world of difference in students’ overall achievement.
Barros’ research incorporated data compiled from 11,000 third-grade students who were divided into two study groups. One group was allowed more than 15 minutes a day for recess. The other students were allowed no time, or fewer than 15 minutes.
“These results indicated that, among 8- to 9-year-old children, having less than one daily recess period of less than 15 minutes in length was associated with better teacher’s rating of class behavior scores,” the conclusion of the study states. “This study suggests that schoolchildren in this age group should be provided with daily recess.”
Her discovery is in line with the viewpoint of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which determined unstructured play — or recess — is important to keep children’s brains healthy, allowing them to achieve “cognitive developmental milestones,” while also helping to alleviate stress.
“When we restructure our education system, we have to think about the important role of recess in child development,” Barros said. “Even if schools don’t have the space, they could give students 15 minutes of indoor activity. All that they need is some unstructured time.”
Studies relating to obesity also highlight the need for daily physical activity. A report published by the CDC in 2009 indicates that starting positive habits among young learners is the best defense against the nation’s obesity epidemic.
In the last 30 years, childhood obesity in the U.S. has more than doubled. In 2010, CDC statistics indicate more than one-third of children were overweight.
“Priority health-risk behaviors, which are behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of morbidity and mortality among youth and adults, often are established during childhood and adolescence, extend into adulthood, and are interrelated and preventable,” the study states.
How NCLB took education one step forward, two steps back
Sue Powell, the principal at Garlough Environmental Magnet School in West St. Paul, Minn., can attest to that. Since incorporating treadmills, desk pedlars and daily “move” segments into the classroom, she’s seen test scores improve.
Powell’s school is unique in the way it approaches physical education. Schools across the nation have faced steep budget cuts in the wake of the economic crisis. While school funding varies depending on the state, a 2013 American Association of School Administrators survey indicated that 80 percent of school administrators said their district was inadequately funded.
The NCLB Act, implemented in 2001 as a method of improving school achievement throughout the nation, put an emphasis on standardized testing. This, in turn, changed the priorities of schools throughout the nation attempting to perform well on the tests, as failure to do so comes with penalties, including mandated budgets.
As a result, physical fitness classes and recess times were cut back. Over the last 40 years, U.S. students have lost 12 hours a week of “free time,” and a 50 percent decrease in outdoor time. This, according to Barros, is a step in the wrong direction, especially if academic success is the goal.
“Many schools responded to No Child Left Behind by reducing the time for recess, the creative arts, and physical education in an effort to focus on reading and mathematics,” Dr. Barros said.
A statement released by the University of Michigan agrees, painting NCLB as a program that is moving schools away from the direction they need to be headed.
“No Child Left Behind does not address health education at all and is drawing funds away from improving the health of America’s children,” Kathy Speregen states on the University of Michigan website. “It does not reflect the mission statements of most schools that include health and wellness of students in their mission and vision. It gives the impression to schools that health education is not a priority and that standardized test scores in ‘core subjects’ are what should be focused on.”
A report in Health Day illustrated the same trend, highlighting cutbacks to physical education at schools around the nation.
“We’ve heard examples of where PE (physical education) and recess have been cut back,” Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the National Education Association told the news agency. “We’re hearing, for example, of schools cutting back on PE and recess in order to make sure they have time to focus on preparing students to take standardized tests.”