How Physical Activity Impacts Cognitive Development

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Andrew Hilt
Research Final

Exercise: The New Food for Thought

Picture yourself in your 2nd grade gym class. Did you ever find yourself wondering why exactly you had to go to gym class at all? What was climbing up this seemingly endless rope to the ceiling going to do for you? What’s the point of playing this dumb game of freeze-tag? How do these activities have anything to do with school and learning? As it turns out, gym class may have served as more than just a pointless time-filling class after all. So how does all the rope climbing and freeze tag-playing relate to school and the progression of the mind for elementary aged children? Evidence from a number of sources shows a direct correlation between physical activity and the development of cognitive ability. Before we examine this relationship, it is important to first understand why the question is controversial. Gym class and physical activity during the school day was not always mandatory for students in grade school. (7) Some teachers would argue that gym class should not be associated with school and that it is a waste of time that should be spent learning. A common argument against gym class is that students will on average, exercise the same amount everyday if they have gym class or not. (8) A study done in the U.K by a team of researchers from Peninsula Medical School suggests that physical activity in school is not really necessary for children to stay fit at all. The research group selected included 206 students ranging from age seven to age eleven. The students were selected from three separate schools around the same area in Plymouth, England. One of the schools mandated its students to an average of 9.2 hours of gym class per week. The other two schools only allowed an average of 2.4 and 1.7 hours of gym class per week for its students. The research team distributed devices called ActiGraphs to all of the students. ActiGraphs work to measure not only the amount of physical activity by the wearer, but also the intensity of the activity. The students were asked to wear these devices during school, and while they were at home until they went to bed. The study found that the children from all three schools moved around about the same amount, at a similar intensity. No matter how much the children were exercising during school, in the end of the day they were still getting the same amount of physical activity on average. (1) This discovery is surprising because of the vast gap in hours spent in gym class per week between the schools. Biostatistician Alissa Fremeaux analyzed the study and suggested a reason for these results. Referring to the children in the study, Fremeaux claims "Once they get home, if they are very active at school, they are probably staying still a bit more because they've already expended so much energy…The others are more likely to grab a bike and run around after school, or maybe join a sports club." (1) The analysis of this experiment suggests that gym class is not necessary to ensure kids are exercising. It does not however, deny that physical activity stimulates the progression of mental ability in elementary students. Despite the results of this study, the growing problem of childhood obesity has forced schools everywhere to make physical activity apart of the school day. (8) This is a crucial decision that especially shows an affect in elementary-aged children. It just so happens that this particular time in a child’s life is very important in determining just how that child will develop in a cognitive sense. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory explains why this is the case. Piaget’s theory divides intellectual development into stages moving from infancy to adulthood. One of these stages is known as the concrete operational stage of development, which typically occurs in children from the age of seven until the age of twelve. During this span of time, children are usually progressing from second...
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