+ Physical Activity May Strengthen Attention Skills

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Findings from a University of Illinois study may result in the addition of  more PE time in schools.  The U of I study appears in the current issue of the journal Neuroscience.

The study found that physical activity may increase students’ cognitive control — the ability to pay attention .  It may also result in better performance on academic achievement tests.

Professor of kinesiology and director of the Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory at Illinois Charles Hillman, leader of the study, says

The goal of the study was to see if a single acute bout of moderate exercise — walking — was beneficial for cognitive function in a period of time afterward.  This question has been asked before by our lab and others, in young adults and older adults, but it’s never been asked in children.  That’s why it’s an important question.

There were positive outcomes in each of three testing criteria linking physical activity, attention and academic achievement.

Study participants were 9-year-olds (8 girls and 12 boys).  They performed a series of stimulus-discrimination tests known as flanker tests, to assess their inhibitory control.

On one day, students were tested following a 20-minute resting period; on another day, after a 20-minute session walking on a treadmill.  Students were shown congruent and incongruent stimuli on a screen and asked to push a button to respond to incongruencies.

During the testing, students were outfitted with an electrode cap to measure Electroencephalographic (EEG) activity.

Hillman says

What we found is that following the acute bout of walking, children performed better on the flanker task.  They had a higher rate of accuracy, especially when the task was more difficult.  Along with that behavioral effect, we also found that there were changes in their event-related brain potentials (ERPs) — in these neuroelectric signals that are a covert measure of attentional resource allocation.

Of particular interest to researchers is one aspect of the neuroelectric activity: a measure called the “P3 potential.”  The amplitude of the potential relates to the allocation of attentional resources.  Hillman says

What we found in this particular study is, fllowing acute bouts of walking, children had a larger P3 amplitude, suggesting that they are better able to allocate attentional resources, and this effect is greater in the more difficult conditions of the flanker test, suggesting that when the environment is more noisy — visual noise in this case — kids are better able to gate out that noise and selectively attend to the correct stimulus and act upon it.

But how might this relate to actual classroom learning? 

Researchers next administered an academic achievement test.  The test measured performance in three areas: reading, spelling and math.

Again, researchers noted better test results following exercise.

Hillman again:

And when we assessed it, the effect was largest in reading comprehension.  If you go by the guidelines set forth by the Wide Range Achievement Test, the increase in reading comprehension following exercise equated to approximately a full grade level.

Thus, the exercise effect on achievement is not statistically significant, but a meaningful difference.

Hillman is not sure, he says, why the students’ performance on the spelling and math portions of the test didn’t show as much of an improvement as did reading comprehension. 

He suspects it may be related to design of the experiment.  Students were tested on reading comprehension first, leading him to speculate that too much time may have elapsed between  the physical activity and the testing period for those subjects.

Future research will look at the timing. 

And future attempts will also introduce other forms of physical-activity testing.  Treadmills are great, says Hillman, but kids don’t walk on treadmills, so it’s not an “externally valid form of exercise” for most children. 

A currently ongoing project is looking at treadmill walking at the same intensity relative to a Wii Fit game — which is a way in which children actually do exercise.

Darla Castelli, study co-author, believes these early findings could be used to inform useful curricular changes.  “Modifications are very easy to integrate,” she says.

For example, she recommends that schools make outside playground facilities accessible before and after school.  She says

If this is not feasible because of safety issues, then a school-wide assembly containing a brief bout of physical activity is a possible way to begin each day.  Some schools are using the Intranet or internal TV channels to broadcast physical activity sessions that can be completed in each classroom.

Castelli’s other recommendations:

  • scheduling outdoor recess as a part of each school day
  • offering formal physical education 150 minutes per week at the elementary level and 225 minutes at the secondary level
  • encouraging classroom teachers to integrate physical activity into learning

For example, reading poetry about nature or the change of seasons, perhaps children could act like falling leaves.  Teachers should brainstorm ways to make physical activities part of the unit being taught.

Source:  sciencedaily.com article on 4/1/09.  No byline.  www.sciencedaily.com  Article was adapted  from materials provided by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Authors of the study, along with Hillman and Castelli, are psychology professor Art Kramer, graduate student Mathew Pontifex, and undergraduate Lauren Raine.

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