Your Kid's Math Performance Could Be Tied to His PE Performance

How well a child does on a math test obviously reflects the amount of time she's put into homework and studying. But oddly enough, it may also reflect the amount of time she's put into basketball, tag, and swimming. A new study shows that fit children might have some educational advantages over classmates who aren't in such good shape.


Researchers tested 9- and 10-year-old kids in two ways: once with a math assessment, and once with an uphill jog on a treadmill. The information collected covered three different axes: One factor was their aerobic capacity (based on how much oxygen their body was capable of using during that treadmill run), and another was their math performance. The last and maybe the most interesting factor came from an MRI taken during the math test: the amount of gray matter in each child's brain.

Students who were physically fit had less gray matter in their brains. That might sound like a bad thing at first glance, but the loss of gray matter is actually part of a maturation process that young brains go through. The stuff that gets pared out is the unused connections -- you can think of it as if getting rid of all the extra junk in the brain keeps the lines clear for what the brain actually cares about. The researchers suspect that more physical activity causes that neural maturation process to happen early; hence the better math performance from the fitter kids in the study.

More from The Stir: Recess Makes Kids Smarter

So what does this actually mean for kids? Important note #1: This study measured stamina and oxygen intake, not weight. "Healthy" kids does not necessarily mean "thin" kids -- it means kids who have a chance to be physically active every day.

And important note #2: The thinning of these brain connections is a maturation process, and it's going to happen eventually; the fact that it happens earlier in certain kids is going to give them an advantage in elementary school classes, certainly. But it would be interesting for researchers to look at how long that advantage persists. At some stage of the game, every brain will be going through that maturation process, after all.

And one last takeaway? This is as good an excuse to push for more recess and better and more frequent physical education for kids of all ages as any I can think of (and I can think of a lot of reasons). If elementary schools want to bump their students' performances on standardized tests, maybe the answer isn't more studying -- maybe it's a regularly scheduled game of Spiders and Flies?


Image via © Blend Images/Corbis

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