Active students fit for better grades

TheStar.com Jun 09, 2008 Louise Brown

New research shows higher test scores for students in Ontario's 33 'Living Schools'
When a quarter-million Ontario school children were prepping for last week's province-wide tests in the "3 Rs," they may have overlooked a surprising study tool.

The workout.
New Ontario research shows schools that push fitness and nutrition have watched their standardized scores rise by as much as 50 per cent over two years in Grade 3 reading and 39 per cent in Grade 3 math – outscoring other schools in similar neighbourhoods by about eight points across all three subjects.

A landmark study of 33 Ontario schools that are part of a health drive called Living Schools – where students exercise each day, play extra sports and are discouraged from eating junk food – saw overall scores climb by 18 per cent over two years in reading, writing and math, compared to about 4 per cent for similar schools not in the provincially funded program.

Principals also said there were fewer fights and better attendance.

"It seems fitness and nutrition aren't just good for your health – they're good for achievement as well," said study author Melanie Guertin, a teacher and advisor to Ontario's Ministry of Children and Youth Services, who conducted the study for the Ontario Physical Health Education Association.

The small homegrown study echoes a growing body of international research that says daily physical activity – which boosts chemicals in the brain such as endorphins and norepinephrine (the fuel behind attention span) and stimulates the hippocampus part of the brain (the key to memory) and also boosts a sense of belonging at school – can cut stress, improve a child's mood and sharpen learning skills.

The link is a wake-up call for Canadians shamed last week by a study showing children across the country spend four to six hours a day in front of a screen – landing the nation an F in physical activity.

It also has implications for schools that argue they are too busy with literacy programs to find time for Ontario's new 20-minute daily workout.

"Schools always say they see daily physical activity as one more add-on when they need to focus on literacy – but it turns out physical activity actually may improve literacy," says Jennifer Cowie Bonne, OPHEA's director of marketing and development.

It's been 30 years since a pivotal study out of Trois-Rivières, Que., showed shortening classes by 14 per cent to create an hour for vigorous daily physical activity boosts marks as well as behaviour and concentration.

Yet parents often miss the connection, paying for tutors to raise their children's marks, while letting them sit on Facebook for hours.

"We can see that pushing physical activity does not mean sacrificing literacy – in fact, kids may be more responsive to literacy after a 20-minute workout," says Dr. Gilles Paradis of McGill University, a physician named this week one of Canada's research chairs in public health for his work promoting healthy lifestyles among the young.

"I know my 15-year-old son needs to get up and move around after a while and when he comes back, he's ready to concentrate again," said Paradis, who calls the link between exercise and learning "a triple-hitter – good for health, good for learning and good for learning social skills."

Sports advocate Bruce Kidd, dean of physical education at the University of Toronto, cites a pilot project in England, where a string of "sports-centred" high schools designed to try to keep kids in school found students not only stayed – but did better in English and math.

"Is it leadership skills they get out of daily sports, or the biophysical benefits to the brain? Whatever the answer, studies show a very strong correlation between daily physical activity and academic scores," Kidd said.

Gurwinder Sagoo is in Grade 8 at Markham's Greensborough Public School, where the entire student body works out every afternoon – principal and vice-principals included – to pop music blasted over loudspeakers. As part of the Living Schools program, it takes the onus off individual teachers to find time for the 20-minute workout and dream up exercises for the kids.

"I got more A's on my report card as soon as I switched to this school where we do physical activity every day and eat apples instead of junk food," Gurwinder, 13., said "I feel more awake and more motivated."

The school has trained 25 Grade 7 students to be "fitness ambassadors" to lead their fellow students through such steps as the Cha-Cha Slide and the Macarena.

"A lot of kids these days get lazy," ambassador Simone Little, 12, said. "They get drives home from school and just play video games all night, so it's good if you get the chance to be active at school."

Guertin will continue her research this fall by visiting active schools to see how they promoted health and fitness. Some have banned parents from dropping off fast food. Greensborough runs a lunch-hour dance class and weekly family basketball night.

While funding for the Living Schools program runs out this month, the provincial government says it has given school boards $14.7 million in the past three years to train teachers how to run daily workouts. It has also boosted grants to enhance special programs including phys. ed., and given $12 million more this year for schools to stay open after hours.

"Exercise gives you a good break between learning," said Greensborough student Yameena Yogeswaran. "If you don't have the chance to do it at home, it's good to get active at school."