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Can acute aerobic exercise improve attention and reading comprehension in teens?

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A new Dartmouth study, "Acute aerobic exercise: an intervention for the selective visual attention and reading comprehension of low-income adolescents," published June 11, 2014 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, shows that 12 minutes of exercise can improve attention and reading comprehension in low-income adolescents, suggesting that schools serving low-income populations should work brief bouts of exercise into their daily schedules.

The study compared low-income adolescents with their high-income peers. While both groups saw improvement in selective visual attention up to 45 minutes after exercising, the low-income group experienced a bigger jump. (Selective visual attention is the ability to remain visually focused on something despite distractions.) The low-income students also improved on tests of reading comprehension following the physical activity, but the high-income students did not.

Study author Michele Tine, assistant professor of education and principal investigator in the Poverty and Learning Lab at Dartmouth, suspects the two groups respond to exercise differently because they experience different levels of stress in life.

"Low-income individuals experience more stress than high-income individuals, and stress impacts the same physiological systems that acute aerobic exercise activates," Tine said, according to the June 12, 2014 news release, 12 minutes of exercise improves attention, reading comprehension in low-income adolescents. "Physiological measures were beyond the scope of this study, but low-income participants did report experiencing more stress. Alternatively, it is possible that low-income individuals improved more simply because they had more room to improve."

This study is a follow-up to one Tine published in 2012. The earlier study found that brief aerobic exercise improved selective visual attention among children, with low-income participants experiencing the biggest improvement.

Tine's latest study shows the effect holds true for adolescents (participants this time ranged from 17 to 21). It also explores, for the first time, exercise's effects on reading comprehension, an important research area because the gap between low- and high-income adolescents' reading comprehension is growing steadily.

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