Youth Fitness: Exercise Helps Children Excel in School


Physical activity is known to boost both body and brain functions, so it’s no wonder that exercise can also help children do better in school. However, not enough kids are getting the minimum requirement of one hour of physical activity per day, as set forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In fact, it’s estimated that only 21.6 percent of children ages 6 to 19 met these requirements in 2015.

Exercise can be added to a child’s routine in a variety of ways before, during, and after school. Learn how you can help your child be more active, despite a busy academic schedule.

  • What the research says

    Physical activity helps with more than weight maintenance and boosted energy. Regular exercise:

    • promotes positive mental health
    • builds strong bones and muscles
    • reduces the likelihood of developing obesity
    • decreases long-term risk factors that can lead to chronic diseases
    • promotes better quality of sleep

    Staying active also impacts academic achievement. It helps to improve concentration, memory, and classroom behavior. Children who meet the guidelines for physical activity perform better academically, have better memory, and are less likely to develop depression, compared to those who spend less time in physical education classes.

    Studies conducted over the past 40 years suggest that exercise in the classroom may help students stay on task and have a better attention span. Reducing physical education in schools may actually hinder academic performance for developing children.

    Even occasional aerobic exercise of moderate intensity is helpful, according to research by the Committee on Physical Activity and Physical Education in the School Environment.

    These spurts of exercise during recess breaks or activity-based learning can improve a child’s cognitive performance. Still, moderate and vigorous activity offer the most benefitsTrusted Source.

  • Exercise recommendations for children

    Encouraging children to be active is essential for proper growth and development. However, it’s important to recommend activities that are safe and appropriate for their abilities. Exercise should to be fun, so it’s something they will want to do.

    Most of a child’s physical activity should include moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobics, such as:

    • bike riding
    • running
    • dancing
    • playing active games and sports

    Play activities and sports that help children of all ages develop strong bones, including:

    • hopping
    • skipping
    • jumping
  • Ages 3 to 5

    Younger children tend to prefer short bursts of activity with brief rest periods, while older adolescents can participate in longer durations of more structured activities.

    The HHS recommends that children ages 3 to 5 years of age engage in physical activity throughout the day. Variety is key here: You may decide to take your child to the playground, or you may play ball in the backyard.

    Younger children enjoy active play, such as gymnastics or playing on a jungle gym. You can also look for clubs and teams suitable for young children at your local park to add variety.

  • Ages 6 to 17

    Older children and adolescents are better equipped for weight-bearing activities. These include aerobic activities, such as soccer or lacrosse. They can also do body-weight exercises, such as:

    • push-ups
    • pull-ups
    • mountain climbing
    • burpees

    While it’s important to engage older children in the right types of exercises suited to their age, it’s just as crucial that they get the right amount of physical activity. In 2018, the HHS issued more specific guidelines for children ages 6 to 17 years of age.

    The recommendations, as outlined in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans include:


    Children in this age group need 60 minutes of aerobic activity every dayMost days should consist of moderate-intensity activities, such as walking and swimming. HHS also recommends three days per week of more vigorous activities, such as bike riding and playing contact sports, like basketball.


    Children also need three days of muscle-bearing activities per week. Ideas include weight-bearing exercises, such as push-ups and gymnastics.


    Your child also needs three days of bone-strengthening activities per week. Body-weight exercises, such as burpees and running, as well as yoga and jumping rope, can help strengthen your bones.

    You can do double duty with certain activities. For example, running can be both an aerobic and a bone-strengthening activity. Swimming can help build muscles while also offering an effective aerobic workout. The key is to keep moving as often as you can, selecting activities you enjoy and that you want to do again.

  • Inspire physical activity in and out of school

    One way to ensure that your child is getting enough physical activity is to lead by example. Try to model an active lifestyle yourself and make it part of the family’s daily routine.

    Here are some ideas for how to encourage your child to be more active:

    • Make physical activity part of time spent together as a family.
    • Take advantage of public parks, baseball fields, and basketball courts in your community.
    • Keep an eye out for upcoming events that promote physical activity at your child’s school or community spaces.
    • Challenge your child to take time off from electronic devices and play with their friends.
    • Team up with other parents in your neighborhood to provide a safe environment for activity-based birthdays or holiday celebrations.

    The most thorough approach to improving a child’s health involves home, school, and community. Parent-teacher associations can further promote these ideas by advocating:

    Still, the above ideas aren’t fool-proof. Schools are increasingly burdened with testing requirements, which can decrease physical education. An estimated 51.6 percent of high schoolers went to physical education classes in 2015. Only 29.8 percent went every day.

    Aside from time constraints to fulfill academic requirements, some children may also have other obligations, such as clubs and work. Others may have transportation issues that would otherwise help them get to safe places to play sports. Staying active requires some planning and consistency.


Physical activity is one of the best ways children can improve their health. Aim for at least one hour of activity daily, including aerobic, muscle-strengthening, and bone-strengthening exercises. Aside from health benefits, your children will likely do better in school, too.


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