A new study shows that regular after-school exercise can improve more than just a child’s ability to run further or jump higher; it can also enhance their attention span and improve multi-tasking skills.
The study, which was led by Charles Hillman, a kinesiology professor and community health expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, focused on 221 elementary-school students aged seven to nine. The study lasted for 150 days, or most of the school year.
Some of the students regularly participated in physically-intense after-school programs, like baseball, football, and ballet. In the end, the study showed that those students who participated in these kinds of activities showed more significant improvement in “executive function” than those students who didn’t participate in physically-demanding after-school programs.
Hillman defines executive function as a range of mental or cognitive skills, including memory, focus, attention, and multi-tasking ability.
“I think these are the hardest evidence we have available that time spent in physical activities, which would include physical education and recess, not only doesn’t detract from academic goals, but it might enhance academic performance,” Hillman said.
Although Hillman feels the study shows that physical activity can improve brain functionality, it’s still not clear to him or other researchers how physical activity affects thinking skills.
That opens the door to future studies, says Nathaniel Riggs, associate professor of human development at Colorado State University. “One important direction for future research is to actually measure physiological processes that may be able to explain these associations,” Riggs said.