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Exercising at own pace boosts a school child’s ability to learn

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School pupils’ attention and memory improves after exercise and the best responses to tests come after physical activity set at their own pace, as opposed to exhaustive exercise, a study has found.

Part of the BBC Learning’s Terrific Scientific campaign, the research involved primary school pupils across the UK and was supported by the universities of Stirling and Edinburgh.

“Our study concluded that exercising leads to improvements in children’s mood and cognition”

Colin Moran

More than 11,000 pupils volunteered to take part in the investigation into the impact of taking a short break from the classroom to complete a physical activity on their mood and cognitive abilities.

They were asked to answer questions about how happy and awake they were feeling, before completing attention and memory tasks on a computer.

Children completed the tasks both before and after they participated in each of three outdoor activities of varying intensities – a bleep test, a run/walk activity and a control activity.

The bleep test was the most intense activity, where the children ran in time with bleeps, which got gradually quicker, until they felt close to exhaustion, said the researchers.

“Children should be encouraged to exercise at their own pace during short breaks from class”

Naomi Brooks

Meanwhile, the run/walk activity was of intermediate intensity where the children ran or walked at a speed of their own choice for 15 minutes.

Lastly, the control activity was the least intense activity where the children went outside to sit or stand for 15 minutes for comparison with the physical activity.

In total, more than 7,300 children provided information on at least one of the key measurements, related to mood and cognition, and participants completed 22,349 batches of computer tasks.

Compared to the control, children reported feeling more awake after taking a break and doing exercise for a short time.

Both the bleep test and the run/walk made participants feel more awake than the control activity, although they felt most awake after the run/walk.

The children also said they felt better after doing the run/walk but reported no difference in the way they felt after completing the bleep test, compared to the control activity.

University of Stirling

Exercising at own pace boosts a school child’s ability to learn

Naomi Brooks

Children responded quicker to the attention task after completing the run/walk, compared to the control and bleep test activities, and were better at controlling their responses after doing the run/walk and bleep test than they were after the control activity.

Following the run/walk, children’s ability to remember words in sentences improved, while there was no difference between the bleep test and control activity. However, there appeared to be no real difference to their ability to remember shapes.

Lead study author Dr Naomi Brooks, from Stirling University, said: “Ultimately, we found that 15 minutes of self-paced exercise can significantly improve a child’s mood, attention and memory – enhancing their ability to learn.

“This suggests that children should be encouraged to exercise at their own pace during short breaks from class,” she said. “This may help children be more ready to learn when they return to the classroom.”

But she added: “They should not be discouraged from doing more vigorous exercise as in most cases the effect of the bleep test was no different from the control activity.

“Importantly, this exercise should be in addition to normal physical education and also at a time when the class teacher thinks the class would benefit the most from a break,” she said.

University of Stirling

Exercising at own pace boosts a school child’s ability to learn

Colin Moran

Meanwhile, co-lead author Dr Colin Moran said: “Overall, our study concluded that exercising leads to improvements in children’s mood and cognition.

“In most tasks, participating in a run/walk activity was more beneficial than doing the bleep test, where children should be closer to exhaustion,” he added.

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