Just last week, the medical journal Pediatrics published the latest in a seemingly endless stream of research which finds that children who participate in daily physical activity experience improved cognitive performance and brain function.  The past year has seen a virtual tsunami of evidence-based research supporting a simple proposal:  Children who are physically active throughout the day perform better academically, behaviorally, and socially.

Executive functioning is impaired in children with ADHD.  What this latest research and numerous other studies demonstrate is that children who exercise, daily, before school and throughout the day – even if only for brief intervals – experience significant improvement in executive control.  Imaging studies of the brain with and without exercise clearly reveal the physiologic benefit of exercise on the brain:  Physical activity causes the brain to “light up” like a Christmas tree.

This “well-lit” brain translates into a child who functions better in the classroom. Studies find these children have significant improvements in math and reading test scores, as well as mood, behavior and overall cognitive performance.  In other words, exercise for the body is really good for the brain.  Exercise also results in improved mood, memory and recall, behavior and self-control.

Over the last three decades, schools have slashed the amount of time devoted to recess and PE, primarily due to budget cuts and increasing curriculum demands.  Long gone are school days which incorporate morning, lunch and afternoon recesses spent playing spirited games of tag, monkey bars, dodge ball, kickball and touch football (the wrongheaded and relentless chipping away of these important types of play is subject for another column altogether).

Meanwhile, growing numbers of children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with ADHD. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculated 11% of children had an ADHD diagnosis in 2011, up from 7.8% in 2003.  This increase has been accompanied by a sharp uptick in prescriptions for medications such as Adderall and Ritalin; in 2011, 6.1% of all children in the U.S. were taking these medications.

Exercise – be it a regimen or simple physical play – is critical to healthy physical and cognitive development, and to our ongoing well-being.  Children need a minimum of 60 minutes of “Moderate To Vigorous Physical Activity” (MVPA) – what we at genHkids like to call “Heart Pounding Fun!” – every single day.

Every.  Single.  Day.

The good news is that those 60 minutes don’t all have to occur in one block of time.  It can be broken up throughout the day into chunks that “reset” the brain and put it into a ready state to learn.  Activity before the school day starts – even something as simple as play time on the playground or before getting on the bus – goes a long way towards setting the stage for a better experience in the classroom.

For more tips and tricks to get your child active at home or before school each day, check out genHkids website.  We also strongly encourage teachers to reach out to genHkids to learn more about our Move More programming to get students up and moving before school and throughout the day.

Have a safe, fun and active October.  Happy Halloween!

Kemia Sarraf, M.D., M.P.H.

President & Founder, genHkids