Reading, writing, and…running? While no one’s suggesting eliminating arithmetic, perhaps the old roster needs an update. While many schools are phasing out physical education classes, researchers are fighting back with data that shows children who participate in physical education class are not only healthier, but also higher achievers.

“The American Heart Association has found that quality physical education programs in schools improve test scores and academic performance,” says Suzanne Ffolkes, Director of Media Advocacy for the American Heart Association. In fact, a study written up in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health showed that elementary school girls who took between 70 – 300 minutes of P.E. per week enjoyed a significant boost in their math and reading skills.

“When a person does an aerobic activity, it helps promote the growth of new brain cells,” says Paul Zientarski, Physical Education/Health Department Chairman at Naperville Central High School in Illinois. “Exercise doesn’t put info into the cells, but without new cells to fill there is no data storage available. Additionally, exercise helps students with ADD to settle down and focus better. Exercise produces chemicals to the brain like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. This is the same as a person taking a dose of Ritalin, only the brain produces it naturally.”

In an ongoing project at Naperville, struggling students were equipped with heart rate monitors and assigned to morning P.E. class or a control group. The students in the morning P.E. class improved their math and reading scores by 20%, while the other students improved by less than 4%.

Combine possible academic benefits with the clear physiological and emotional benefits, and exercise sounds like a magic bullet. Ideally, your child’s school offers regular physical education classes and plentiful opportunities to get involved in extracurricular activities, from recess to t-ball. If not, take every opportunity you can to squeeze in 60 minutes of physical activity almost every day. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Fit in bursts of physical activity whenever and wherever you can. Walk to school, take the stairs, and urge your teen to explore the real world instead of the world wide web. “Kids who have the opportunity to play outside typically get more exercise than those who do not,” says Charles Corbin, PhD., Professor Emeritus in the Department of Exercise and Wellness at Arizona State University.
  • Remember, intensity counts. “Recess is not the answer,” says Zientarski. “Students who don’t put forth the effort in our classes don’t fare as well academically as those who meet our requirements.” You don’t need a gym membership to get your child’s blood pumping. Just bring out a jump rope or a trampoline, play some basketball, skip around the park or suggest a long hike.
  • If you think gym class is all about dodge ball, choosing teams, and public humiliation, think again. Naperville’s “New P.E.” is about achieving personal fitness.

Whether your child is a future NBA player or an ordinary Joe, he’ll reap important rewards from exercise. Don’t worry about hitting the ball or winning the game. Focus on fun, find activities he enjoys, and he’ll be more likely to stick with them.