Why children and adolescents should move more at school (and at home)

As a parent or teacher, I’m sure you’ve observed that children and young people are more alert, happier, and better behaved after some (any!) sort of physical activity.

There is now a convincing body of evidence showing a causal link between physical activity and improved cognitive function in school-age children. Cognitive function includes things like memory, attention, creativity, and problem solving, which are all crucial to academic achievement. There is also some evidence that physical activity reduces depression in this age group.

Sadly, in the UK, most children and adolescents don’t meet the minimum requirement for daily physical activity. Which means they’re probably not reaching their cognitive and academic potential.

If ever there was a single magic pill for all aspects of health, physical activity would surely be it. The evidence that physical activity is beneficial (and absolutely necessary) for humans is, frankly, overwhelming at this point. It probably comes as no surprise that physical activity improves cognitive performance in children and adolescents, and makes them happier. We’ve observed it first-hand in our own children and students (as well as in ourselves).

But does the science support our observations?

In a very comprehensive review paper published in 2019, researchers analysed all of the available evidence (42 systematic reviews covering over 700 primary studies) of the effect of physical activity on mental health in children and adolescents. They found reasonably strong evidence that physical activity causes improvements in cognitive function, and some evidence that it reduces depression. While physical activity also appears to improve self-esteem and reduce anxiety, there isn’t (yet) sufficient evidence of causality.

The strongest evidence for causality was for cognitive function, so let’s focus on that. Physical activity (and physical fitness) improves cognitive function in children and young people generally, but the effects are larger in the case of ADHD (again, probably no surprise there). As well as cognitive function, there is evidence for improvements in academic achievement and brain structure. However, there isn’t yet sufficient evidence to say how much physical activity is required. Although we can use some educated guess work.

For overall health, the minimum physical activity requirement for 5-18 year olds in the UK is 60 minutes of moderate-vigorous intensity exercise – including aerobic and strength exercise – every day. This is probably a good place to start for improving cognitive function.

How many children and young people are meeting this requirement? According to a 2019 Sport England survey, only 17.5% are physically active for 60+ minutes every day. So, more than 80% of our children and school students are not meeting the minimum daily physical activity requirements. What effect is that having on their ability to think, to learn, and to solve problems? What effect is it having on their happiness?

If 60 minutes of physical activity every day is the minimum, are there additional benefits from doing more? In other words, is there a dose-response? The review paper couldn’t answer this question either (in the specific case of cognitive function in children and adolescents). But since there is a dose-response relationship between physical activity and just about every other health outcome, I suspect there’s likely to be one here too (and the authors of the paper think it’s plausible). For now, it’s safe to assume that some is better than none, 60 minutes every day is the minimum target, and more is probably better.

As parents and teachers, we have work to do.

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