Aerobic Fitness Boosts Learning and Memory in Children

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There is a call from the First Lady to battle childhood obesity.  The growing trend of childhood inactivity is devastating to our children.  With city and state budget cuts, one of the first school programs to be cut is Physical Education.  Lawmakers and education policy makers should be aware there is a growing amount of evidence that demonstrates the importance of physical activity and the learning capabilities of children.  The latest study showed another positive correlation between fitness and memory in children.

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Aerobic Fitness

This study, published in the journal PLOS one, involved 48 children aged 9 and 10. On day one, the students were placed into either the high fit group or the low fit group using results from a maximal oxygen consumption test called the VO2 max.  The VO2 max test measures individual cardiorespiratory fitness.  Each child was required to get onto a treadmill where the elevation and intensity increased every 2 minutes.  Using readings from heart rate monitors and verbal ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) from the children, the researchers were able to adequately identify the high fit and low fit groupings. The researchers only chose the children who were above the top 70% in fitness levels (High fit group) and those who were in the lowest 30% in fitness levels (Low fit group).  Any children with fitness levels between 30-70% were excluded from the study.

Read also: Exercise Improves Kids Academic Performance

Memory and Fitness

On day 2, the children were then asked to study fictional maps and memorize the different regions and names. Two learning strategies were used, the Study Only strategy and the Test Study strategy.  In the Study Only (SO) strategy, the children could memorize the map information only.  In the Test Study (TS) strategy, the children were tested as they reviewed the fictional map.  The children spent equal time at both strategies. The main difference between the two strategies is that the SO strategy provided additional study opportunities whereas the TS strategy included tests interspersed with study opportunities.

On day 3, the children were asked to come back and recall what they had learned the day prior.  There were also two recall strategies tested, free recall and cued recall. In free recall, the students were given the maps with blanks and they needed to fill in the names of the regions in the blanks provided.  Typically, free recall is found to be more difficult because there are no clues to help them remember the names on the map.  In cued recall, the same maps were used, but the students were given a word bank with the names of the regions on the map.  So how did each group perform?

What the researchers found is that the harder the test, the high fit students scored significantly higher than the low fit students.  The students with high fitness levels outperformed the students with low fitness levels in the free recall tests versus the cued recall tests.  The researchers also found that fitness related benefits were most seen when the initial tests were the most challenging (SO Strategy).   With results like this, educators have to wake up and see the value of increasing fitness levels of their students. They need to invest time and money in well developed Physical Education programs.

Physical Fitness Standards for Children

With another body of evidence that links fitness to learning and children, there has been a growing rumble from parents and communities to continue Physical Education in the school system.  There is a misunderstanding that increasing academic time will lead to higher test scores and more effective learning. Numerous studies have shown that academic time, coupled with physical fitness will provide the best formula for increased learning, higher school attendance, higher test scores, and less disciplinary action.

If you are unsure of the standards, guidelines have been put out by US Department of Health and Human Services.  Backed by scientific data, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, states that children and adolescents should perform at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.  Moreover, the National Parent Teacher Association recommends that schools provide half of the physical activity, 30 minutes daily.


The Influence of Childhood Aerobic Fitness on Learning and Memory, published in PLOS ONE, 11 September 2013

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009.

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