Previously, we have written about why a healthy, balanced diet and getting a good night’s sleep is important for studying and concentration. We all know exercise is important for our general health, but what many of us may not know is that exercise has many benefits specifically in relation to our brain’s ability to perform optimally. Let’s have a look at some of these benefits:
Exercise improves blood circulation and sleep
When we exercise, our hearts work harder to pump more blood around our bodies because our muscles are working harder than when we rest, and they need more blood to support their hard work. Our blood carries oxygen, which all our cells and organs need to function and thrive, and the brain is no exception. Our brains need plenty of oxygen so we can think, plan, and concentrate properly. By increasing our blood flow, we also increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, which helps improve our ability to focus, study, and remember, which in turn improves academic performance. Exercise also improves our ability to fall and stay asleep, which is vital for optimal brain functioning. Because exercise physically tires us, we spend more time sleeping, and a better night’s rest means an improved ability to focus (and study!) the next day.
Exercise alleviates stress
Stress – when at the right levels – can improve our performance at work or school, but often too much stress has the opposite effect. If we are too stressed, the increased levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in our blood actually interferes with our brain’s cognitive functioning. This results in poor concentration and memory, among other things. Exercise helps to combat this by lowering the levels of cortisol in our bodies. Exercising also releases endorphins, which are known as the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals, and these also aid post-exercise relaxation. When our endorphin levels are high and our cortisol levels low, we are better able to focus and remember, which results in improved academic performance.
Exercise increases neurotrophins
Neurotrophins are a kind of protein that helps protect our neurons (nerve cells). There are over 85 billion neurons in our brain, so it’s important to support their development, health, and survival. Neurotrophins also assist will cell differentiation, which is the process of young nerve cells becoming specialised cells – the majority of cell differentiation happens early on in childhood. With increased exercise, we find an increase in the number of neurotrophins in children’s brains, and this means increased cell differentiation, development, and protection, which all lead to better cell functioning and ultimately, better cognitive functioning. Properly differentiated, developed, and protected brain cells mean improved concentration, mental processing, and memory, all of which are vital for academic success.
How much exercise do children need?
So, how much physical exercise do children need, and what kind? The World Health Organisation recommends that children between the ages of 5 and 17 should get a total of 60 minutes (1 hour) of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, which means short bouts of exercise performed over the day can be added up. Moderate activity means exercise like walking or riding a bike, where children can still talk while sweating more and breathing with a little more difficulty. Vigorous activities are those that cause us to sweat more and speak only a few words between breaths, like running or swimming for prolonged periods of time.
It is recommended that children between the ages of 5 and 17 participate in vigorous activity specifically 3 times a week, as well as muscle and bone-strengthening exercise 3 times a week. Muscle and bone-strengthening exercises include running, jumping rope, and sports like tennis and hockey.
Encouraging children to participate in physical activity can be tough if your children aren’t athletically inclined, so be sure to give them the freedom to explore different kinds of exercise so that they can find one they enjoy! Once your child has found a sport or activity they like, encourage them to stick to it, and watch those grades improve!
by Jacqui Smit