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I recommended movement to everyone I see in my clinic, including kids. Moving our bodies has many benefits for mental and physical health. As life becomes more sedentary we can struggle to encourage movement habits in our children and ourselves. This can lead to mental and physical health problems.

This large recent study that found benefits for exercise for school-aged children’s mood, attention and memory grabbed my interest because it also looked at factors such as intensity and choice of exercise activities. Parents often feel overwhelmed by trying to schedule in exercise because of time constraints and child willingness. This study’s findings help takes out the guesswork about what works best.

The study is part of the BBC Learning’s Terrific Scientific campaign and is part-funded by the University of Edinburgh and the Physiological Society. Over 11,000 school pupils across the UK participated. Children investigated the impact of taking a short break from the classroom to complete a physical activity on their mood and cognitive abilities.

Researcher Dr Naomi Brooks explained: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that short breaks involving physical activity can boost concentration and happiness in pupils. While this is positive, the evidence is not conclusive and this is what we asked the children to help investigate.”

The children answered questions about their mood – such as how happy and alert they were feeling – before completing computer based attention and memory tasks. Children undertook the tasks both prior to and following participation in each of three outdoor activities. These activities were:

  • A bleep test: An intense activity, where the children ran in time with bleeps, which got gradually quicker, until they felt close to exhaustion.
  • A run/walk activity: An activity graded as intermediate intensity where the children ran or walked at a speed of their own choice for 15 minutes.
  • A control activity: The children went outside to sit or stand for 15 minutes. This was used to compare whether there were benefits to physical activity other than purely going outside.

The results show that children reported feeling more alert after taking a break and doing exercise for a short time than in the control activity of going outside. The children felt more alert after both the bleep test and the run/walk but they felt most alert after the run/walk. The children also said they felt better after doing the run/walk but reported no difference in the way they felt after completing the bleep test when compared to the control activity.

Results on the computer tasks were also better when children completed the medium intensity run/walk activity. Responses were quicker to the attention task after completing the run/walk, compared to the control and bleep test activities. Children controlled their responses more effectively after doing the run/walk and bleep test than after the control activity.

Children were better able to recall words in sentences in the run/walk condition. There was no difference between the bleep test and control activity. There was no difference in children’s ability to remember shapes after any of the outdoor activities.

The researchers concluded that the children’s best responses to tests came after physical activity that was set at their own pace, as opposed to exhaustive exercise. “Ultimately, we found that 15 minutes of self-paced exercise can significantly improve a child’s mood, attention and memory – enhancing their ability to learn,” says Dr Booth. “This suggests that children should be encouraged to exercise at their own pace during short breaks from class. This may help children be more ready to learn when they return to the classroom.”

What does this mean for parents?

As parents, we can incorporate this knowledge into how we infuse movement into our children’s lives. This study shows you don’t have to exercise for long bursts to get benefits. Instead:

  • Brief exercise breaks of 15 minutes of a self-chosen moderate activity are likely to be the most beneficial and also motivating for your children.
  • Slip in 15 minute movement breaks between homework and chores.
  • Make it fun and be creative. If your child doesn’t like running and walking try dance games or ball games. Or turn your walk into a treasure hunt. For example today we have to find one red leaf, a feather, a rock, and point out a bird.
  • Move with them. Most kids love it when their parent joins in the activity. This will boost your daily movement levels too. Why not enjoy the benefits?

How do you add movement to your child’s life? Let us know in the comments!

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