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We’ve all heard that exercise is important for kids. The First Lady has made something of a crusade of this but hard evidence to back it up has been pretty thin. Exercise is good for adults, yes, but is it really essential for kids? Don’t they get enough exercise already?

Now, a long-term, large-scale study in England has the facts we’ve been looking for. Girls, especially, who were more active at age 11 did better in high school than other children, and the girls who were the most active did the best of everyone in science.

We’ve discussed this British study before, so it might seem familiar. Thousands of English children have been followed since 1991, creating data on all sorts of behaviors and outcomes. In one part of the study, 5,000 eleven-year-old kids wore an accelerometer for a week, which how much time was spent in active motion. The findings were surprising.

Despite the fact that the recommended amount of exercise for children is at least one hour per day, the average level of exercise was far less.  Boys averaged just 29 minutes per day – not quite half the minimum recommended amount. For girls the average was only 18 minutes – less than one-third the recommended minimum.

Children’s level of exercise at age 11 was compared to standardized test scores in English, math and science. The more active a child was, the better he or she did on all of the tests. This advantage lasted. The most active children continued to outshine other kids academically at ages 13 and 16.

Most surprising of all was that girls who got the highest levels of exercise were better than all other kids – boys as well as girls – in science.

Although the study controlled for ordinary factors, like household income and other family factors, there might certainly be some link besides exercise that predicts children’s academic success. But until we know more, there’s no harm in getting your kids more active.

  1. Continue to encourage active play and sports participation into adolescence, for your sons and also for your daughters.
  2. Keep track of time spent in active play and don’t rely on guesses that your children are “active enough.”
  3. Support physical education programs at your child’s middle school and make certain that class time really is spent in active play – not in lectures or sitting on the sidelines.
  4. Accept no excuses from your child that lead to frequent skipping of P.E. class.

Health is not an add-on. Promoting children’s health is what parents are supposed to do. Now that you know that plenty of exercise makes your child smarter too, do everything you can to get him or her up and active.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.