Parents now have one more reason to urge their kids to get off the couch, abandon their video games, turn off the TV and head outside for exercise.
A new study published in the Oct. 22 online edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that moderate to vigorous physical activity can mean long-term improvement in teens’ academic performance.
“Our study suggests that the effect of physical activity may be quite large,” co-author John Reilly, PhD, a professor of physical activity and public health science at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, told Bloomberg.
Investigators followed a representative sample of nearly 5,000 children who were enrolled in a study that tracked children born in the U.K. between 1991 and 1992. When the children were 11 their daily physical activity was measured by an accelerometer attached to an elastic belt and worn for three to seven days.
Accelerometer data showed that on average, boys exercised 29 minutes a day and girls 18 minutes a day, well below the 60 minutes of physical activity recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Researchers tested study participants’ academic performance at ages 11 and 13, using compulsory national tests, and then again at 15 or 16 using the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exam. The tests measured students’ abilities in math, science and English.
Study results revealed that the more the kids participated in moderate to vigorous exercise the higher their test scores were at age 11 in all three subjects. Follow-up studies when the children were 13 showed that their scores were still linked to how much they’d exercised when they were 11 years old.
According to a news release, by the time study participants took the GSCE exam at 15 or 16, boys experienced an increase in academic performance for each 17 minutes a day they exercised as 11-year-olds. Girls experienced a boost in grades for each 12 minutes a day they spent participating in physical activities when they were 11.
Of particular interest to researchers was the fact that at all ages, girls showed a significant improvement in science as a result of engaging in regular physical activity. These findings, noted the investigators, could be a chance finding, but they suggest that they may also indicate possible differences in the way exercise affects the female brain.
“If moderate to vigorous physical activity does influence academic attainment this has implications for public health and education policy by providing schools and parents with a potentially important stake in meaningful and sustained increases in physical activity,” concluded the study authors.