Because your child’s classroom this fall probably will be the dining room, it would be a good idea to send them outside before they start their school day. They’ll be primed to learn.
In 2009, researchers found that as little as 20 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise at 60% of maximum heart rate improves academic performance in children — immediately.
“Think of that as about the pace of the walk to school in the morning,” says Charles Hillman, lead author of the study and associate director of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health at Northeastern University. Pre-adolescent kids walked on a treadmill for 20 minutes and afterward were administered cognitive tests. (The pace was easy enough that no child dropped out.) The conclusion was that “single, acute bouts of moderately intense aerobic exercise may improve the cognitive control of attention” for at least 60 minutes afterward.
Aerobic exercise, Hillman says, helps kids focus their attention during demanding tasks — such as their online lessons at the dining room table with family members milling about — and helps them tune out distractions. This focus allows them to process information more quickly, he says, which translated in the study to better accuracy on cognitive measures and higher achievement scores in reading and math.
After this study, other researchers were interested in the follow-up question: Could exercise help kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, who have trouble focusing, or staying on task and keeping out distractions?
Results were promising. One 2012 study found that immediately after exercise, children with ADHD performed better on tests in reading and math, had greater levels of attention and self-regulated better than they did after solitary reading. And in a 2020 study, children ages 11 to 16 with ADHD who cycled for 20 minutes at moderate intensity showed similar improvements in staying on task for at least 60 minutes after they exercised.
Matthew Pontifex, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Michigan State University and lead author of the 2012 study, says that those with ADHD normally have difficulty monitoring and controlling off-task behaviors. But after exercise, “they were better able to regulate their behaviors ... and were better able to institute corrective actions.”
This happens because exercise seems to help with a child’s ability to inhibit inappropriate impulses and select a more appropriate response to that impulse. For example, rather than act out in frustration if they can’t solve a problem, a child may ask the teacher for help.
Exercise can also help suppress a motor response to a learned behavior, like talking out in class. In the classroom, this control helps kids focus on the instruction. At home, it might keep them focusing on the online lesson and resist the temptation to go play Roblox.
The implications for classroom learning are enormous: Children with ADHD could stay on task longer and require less redirection, which could make instructional time more effective when kids are home this fall.
The good news is that 20 minutes may not be necessary. Even short bursts of exercise during breaks in instructional time are effective, which for many parents is more practical. And any movement works.
In 2004, Matt Mahar, director of the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University, developed the Energizers program, a series of short duration physical exercises kids can perform. Mahar recommends two or three breaks a day to help keep students on task, wherever they are. Exercise in the middle of instructional time, Mahar writes, is part of a consistent finding in research that “classroom-based physical activity results in better on-task behavior than sedentary seated lessons” for all kids, not just those with ADHD.
Mahar’s research also showed improved on-task behavior after physical activity in the classroom — he found that kids who were the least on task to start with had a much greater increase in time on task after physical activity compared to the rest of the students. Kids with ADHD could fall into this territory: The students who benefit the most are also those who need it the most.
“If kids pay attention, they learn better, and there are fewer behavioral problems,” Mahar says.
At the private McLean School in Potomac, Md., which welcomes children with ADHD in K-12, exercise is everywhere. Teachers use exercise breaks during instructional time to ensure that students stay on task.
Second-grade teacher Kerri Sullivan gives her students short assignments with movement breaks in between. “I might read a story and discuss it with my students in one area of the room,” Sullivan says. “Then they transition back to their seats to do the writing assignment.”
At their morning meeting, students can participate in movement exercises, and they use short bursts of exercise throughout the day. It’s also common for teachers at McLean to send students out of the classroom for a walk if they are having trouble concentrating.
Kerrie Armstrong’s son graduated from McLean in spring, and she said that when he had physical education class every day, “his ability to focus drastically improved. His brain was so much sharper. It was almost like activity got rid of that restlessness.”
She noticed a change when he began ninth grade and lost the daily PE class. She got notes from his teachers about his behavior. Her husband started a workout routine with him before school, and the notes stopped. “That’s when we made the connection that he needed to exercise,” Armstrong says.
When both kids and parents participate, it becomes family time. Nikki Cohen’s 6-year-old son, who goes to a different private school, Bullis School, in Potomac, Md., was recently diagnosed with ADHD. When online learning began last spring, he had trouble sitting for any period of time. Cohen began incorporating movement throughout the day, such as jumping jacks or helping her carry laundry baskets up and down the stairs.
“Little by little, the more we’d do before he sat down, the better he did,” she says. Cohen introduced a morning routine of walking to the end of the street then jogging back. To get her son excited, Cohen made it a competition to see who could run faster. She noticed improvement immediately. Cohen says that “before we started exercising, he was only begrudgingly answering teacher questions. But once we began, he was volunteering meaningful responses, sitting and listening.”
Kids being kids, they’re more likely to engage if their parents aren’t telling them to do exercise, experts say. Parents and children can get creative, but it should be an activity the child already likes. In addition to the Energizers program that he created for elementary school kids, Mahar says the GoNoodle video program can be helpful. Both can be done in the house.
Older kids need more autonomy, so pick an activity that aligns with what they already like to do. Mahar recommends music. “Let them choose their own music and listen for 10 minutes while they move. When you hear a good song, it makes you want to move. When you hear a great song, you have no choice but to move,” he says.
Experts agree that active and outside is the ideal combination, and make it simple. You don’t need to set up an obstacle course; a walk works fine.
“I’m not worried about intensity as much as I am about getting outside. Establish the routine now, when the weather is nice,” Pontifex says. Hillman recommends starting the day with a 20-minute walk, then scattering movement breaks throughout the day. After any activity, however, a short five-minute transition ensures that the child is ready for instruction and that any extra energy has dissipated. Kids need a few minute to settle.
With many children getting set to go to school at home instead of in classrooms, it is the perfect time to reconsider “how classroom environment affects behavior,” and not just for kids with ADHD, Mahar says.
“We expect kids to do things in school that we can’t adhere to as adults, like spending several hours a day in a chair,” Hillman says. “We ask them to maintain long stretches of attention that are far beyond their capability, then we complain when they aren’t able to do so.”
This fall could be an opportunity to change that.