Health, Food & Nutrition

Q: How Much Movement Do Kids Need During the School Day?

The science is clear: Exercise during the school day promotes better focus, less impulsivity, and fewer disciplinary referrals. In other words, kids learn and behave better when they are physically active. So how much is the right amount of exercise? And are some activities better than others? Find the answers here.

Children playing
Happy elementary kids playing together with jumping rope outdoor. Children playing skipping rope jumping game and laughing outdoors. Happy cute girl jumping over skipping rope held by her friends.

Health and Human Services says we should be exercising about an hour a day, five days a week. For kids especially, exercise helps sharpen focus and combat digital distractions.

In preschool, children should be moving all the time. The focus should be on movement and activity rather than numbers and letters.

In elementary school, I like the BOKS Kids before- and after-school exercise program, which includes 45 minutes of activity, three days a week. The period of active play includes chase games, tag, running, and even calisthenics. Reports indicate students are less impulsive, more focused, and more cooperative. It has shown an immediate drop in disciplinary referrals.

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Evidence is repeatedly pointing toward the benefits of exercise in the classroom. Taking five minutes several times a day to exercise, whether it’s just getting up and doing jumping jacks, doing stretching or squats or turning the music on and dancing for two minutes, can really stimulate students’ attention. Finland, one of the countries whose students are always in the top testing percentile, is an example of this. From grade school through junior high, every class comprises 45 minutes of seat time followed by 15 minutes of play and exercise.

There is a misconception that exercise “revs up” kids. In fact, it helps decrease agitation. Active kids aren’t just burning off excess energy; they’re turning on the front part of their brains. When you challenge your brain, you are activating the attention system. That is why exercise sharpens focus for students with both hyperactive/impulsive ADHD and inattentive ADHD. Even more beneficial are activities like dancing and yoga, which focus on balance and coordination, and therefore activate the cerebellum, the back part of our brain. We know this is one of the big partners in our attention system to help us stay focused.

If you are a parent who’d like to advocate for more exercise at your child’s school, you can use resources from my Facebook page and the web. There are plenty of articles written in popular press that describe studies and show that exercise improves the ability to focus and improve grades and so forth.

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This content came from the ADDitude webinar by John Ratey, M.D., titled “The Exercise Rx for ADHD: How Movement Improves Attention, Working Memory, and Executive Functions”, which is available for free replay here.

John Ratey, M.D., is a member of the ADDitude ADHD Specialist Panel.

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