The Strongest Argument Ever

I am writing this blog specifically for administrators or educators to bring to their administration because I am hoping that the reason public education has not endorsed creating physically active students is out of the ignorance of the overwhelming evidence that has been steadily flooding the academic and research world. It is my hope that after reading this you will realize that physical activity is the number one way you can increase test scores in your students. I am specifically hanging my hat on the dreaded idea of test score increases because that is a goal that almost every school has. You may not want that as a goal but I know the pressure is there to increase test scores and that schools are judged largely based on them. If we look at physical activity through the lens of test scores it will be a much easier sell to your staff and board of education.

In the interest of clarity this is not about advocating simply for physical education. Although as doctoral student Shrehan Lynch has stated, “Physical education provides opportunities to teach social justice, cooperative learning skills, teamwork and physical fitness”, the purpose of this paper is to advocate for incorporating more physical activity into schools. Physical education is only one piece of that puzzle. We will discuss why that is the case after presenting the overwhelming evidence that physical activity is a major key when looking to improve test scores.

That brings us to the issue of what exactly physical activity is.

Physical activity is defined as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. (link)

Let’s start with what the evidence shows us the link between physical activity and test scores first. California mandates standardized tests for math, language arts, and physical fitness. There was a study of 1,989 ethnically diverse fifth, seventh and ninth graders that made up this study. Here are the results of that study:

Students whose mile run/walk times exceeded California Fitnessgram standards or whose BMI exceeded CDC (Center for Disease Control) sex- and age-specific body weight standards scored lower on California standardized math, reading and language tests than students with desirable BMI status or fitness level, even after controlling for parent education among other covariates. Ethnic differences in standardized test scores were consistent with ethnic differences in obesity status and aerobic fitness. Low aerobic fitness is common among youth and varies among ethnic groups, and aerobic fitness level predicts performance on standardized tests across ethnic groups. (Link)

This clearly shows that students, regardless of ethnicity, showed that the lower their fitness the lower their test scores. Who has lower fitness levels? Those who don’t engage in physical activity. If this was the only study that showed these same results I would be unimpressed. There are more.

A study of 253 Elementary schools in California showed more of the same information:

The results indicate that California Standard Test scores of each group; total, male, female, and ED students were significantly correlated with their Physical Fitness Test scores, that is; as Physical Fitness Test scores increased California Standard Test scores also increased. There was a positive linear relationship between the California Standard Test scores of the students and their Physical Fitness Test scores. Link

That is an impressive stat right there that you can hand your hat on when you go talk to your board about making changes to your school! Over 250 SCHOOLS showed a positive correlation! Wow. You may have noticed that both studies were from California. Let’s see what other studies have been done showing the positive correlation between fitness and test scores.

A research study done in West Virginia of over 1,700 fifth and seventh graders found that students who were able to stay in the healthy fitness zone of the FitnessGram Test scored higher on their standardized test. (Link)

Students’ aerobic capacity is associated with greater academic achievement as defined by standardized test scores. This advantage appears to be maintained over time, especially if the student stays in the Healthy Fitness Zone.

The studies keep on rolling. Here is a study of over 11,000 students in Nebraska. That is a huge sample size!  This is what that study found:

They found that aerobically fit students had 2.41 and 2.23 times greater odds of passing the state’s math and reading tests than aerobically unfit students. This held true for low-income students at lower odds of 1.56 for math and 1.68 for reading. Link

How can we ignore this mass amount of information? More importantly why are we ignoring this mountain of information?

The most powerful study I came across really struck home how important fitness is to cognitive ability. The study had an enormous amount of data from people who shared the same DNA. It also had the gold standard of research with a large number of identical twins. Identical twins have the exact same DNA so it is much easier to filter out variables that affect most studies. Here is what the study found.

“The data set included 270,000 brothers and 1,300 identical twins and showed that cardio fitness and not familial relationship turned out to be the better predictor of both cognitive ability and IQ. That is despite the popular assumption that IQ is genetically determined, fitness and not genes held the greater sway over these tests of intellect.” Link

Does it get any more powerful than that? Yes. Yes it does. Naperville was made famous when Dr. Ratey penned the book entitled Spark. What he found there was incredible. They spend less money than surrounding districts on their students and increase their student’s physical fitness. This data is amazing.

Academically, Naperville High School is currently in the top 10 in the state despite the fact that they spend less money per pupil than other high schools in their district. The students at Naperville decided to take the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) given around the world. The United States has notoriously done poorly on this test. Whereas in Asian countries nearly half of the students score in the top tier, only 7 percent of U.S. students hit that mark. In Naperville, 97 percent of the 8th graders took the test. On the science section, they finished just ahead of Singapore, number one in the world. And on the math section, they were number 6 in the world. And all of this change can be attributed to their innovative exercise program. Link

Every time I read or hear about Naperville I wonder why aren’t more schools jumping on the physical activity bandwagon? The more you research the more studies you find supporting physical activity with higher test scores and cognitive ability. If you have ever uttered the phrases “this is what’s best for kids” or “research based” while ignoring this research you need to change your vision. Here is overwhelming evidence that shows what is best for kids and has the research to back it up.

You may be wondering what exactly physical activity does to help create these higher test scores. It is not the movement itself that helps the brain. As Dr. Ratey, author of the book Spark, likes to say, “The exercise itself doesn’t make you smarter, but it puts the brain of the learners in the optimal position for them to learn.”

Specifically, physical activity appears to stimulate the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps neurons and synapses grow. In fact, BDNF has been likened to fertilizer for the brain (Ratey, 2008; Fotuhi, 2013). Link

BDNF is the key to why fitness helps with test scores.

BDNF is really the brain’s wonder drug if you will. It essentially, if it’s applied to cultured neurons, it increases their growth differentiation and protects them against insults. They’re just a stronger cell. I mean it’s almost like the equivalent of a fertilizer to a plant – it just makes the thing much healthier and stronger. And so when we looked after a few nights of exercise, I mean our initial expectation was that if we saw anything in sensory motor areas, we were going to be quite excited. But part of the great thrill of science is that sometimes you get clues that are given out, you know, that you never expected. And what we actually found is that some of the biggest increases were in these cognitive brain areas such as the hippocampus and interrhinal cortex that are involved in learning and memory. Link

The important part of that quote above is that BDNF increases the size of the hippocampus.  “The hippocampus is associated mainly with memory, in particular long-term memory.” (link) It makes perfect sense that those students who have a more developed hippocampus due to exercise would be able to score better on a standardized test. They have a better memory! It turns out that this study (link) found exactly that.

I have laid out what I believe to be an irrefutable argument that physical activity is paramount to a student’s cognitive success in school. The next logical question is how can schools improve their students fitness? The obvious answer to that is for physical education to be increased to five days a week. We have to remember that physical education is not only about movement. I personally believe that movement comes behind social emotional learning even in physical education.

For the reasons stated above I would recommend increasing physical education to daily as well as creating a separate times to give the students more time to be physically active. Dr. Beighle has a brilliant idea of giving the students 15 minutes of recess in the morning and 15 minutes of recess in the afternoon. We have fallen into the trap of thinking that recess has to come directly before or after lunch.

TCU has a research program going on now called LIINK. One of their main goals is to increase the amount of physical activity in schools. They have implemented four 15 minute recesses during the day. This is a study done by a major University. They have not published their research yet anecdotal evidence has shown that this model is outshining even the largest of expectations. You can read more about it here. There is also an entire Voxcast where Dr. Rhea breaks down the program and speaks about its merits.

Another factor that came on our radar is when we schedule physical activities. This article speaks about everything I have addressed above as well as the time frame of the activities.

Schedule physical activity when it matters most. Several of the studies cited here found benefits of engaging in physical activity directly before taking tests or especially challenging classes. In an experiment at Naperville High School, students taking a physical education class, appropriately titled “Learning Readiness P.E.,” right before a literacy class showed twice as much improvement in their literacy skills as students who had several hours between physical education and the literacy course. Link

Think of your body as an ax. When you use the ax over and over again the ax starts to get dull. Once it gets dull you need to sharpen it or else it starts to become an inefficient tool.  Physical activity is what sharpens the tool we call our body. Without it we know we are increasing our chances of cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. What we don’t realize is that exercise can not only ward those off but it makes us our brain sharper. Our brain is the control center of the tool we call our body! A smarter more efficient brain makes a better body and vice versa.

My hope is that this blog will give you enough evidence to have changed your mind as well as those stakeholders you come in contact with. It is clear that physical activity is an area in schools that is seriously underdeveloped and unspoken of. There are schools spread out sporadically that are using action based labs and value fitness but they are extremely rare. Please be the change in your school that values fitness not only for test scores but for how much it helps every dimension of wellness.