Exercise Before the Bell May Improve Young Children’s Focus

By ANN LUKITS in the Wall Street Journal

Sitting still and listening to the teacher can be a challenge for young children, especially after a long vacation. Scheduling a physical-education class before the morning bell could improve their focus, suggests a small study in Preventive Medicine Reports.

Researchers found that children spent more time following instructions and working quietly at their desk—so-called on-task behaviors—on days they participated in a school-run physical-activity program before the start of morning classes. On days they didn’t exercise, the children were more likely to interrupt, make noise and stare into space, known as off-task behaviors.

Gym classes are traditionally held during school hours but many schools have reduced the time allotted for physical activity in favor of academic subjects, the researchers said. Before-school programs may improve students’ in-class behavior and readiness to learn without taking time away from academics, the study suggested.

Previous studies have shown that bouts of high-intensity physical activity can enhance students’ cognition, especially executive function, which involves processes that make it possible to stay focused, the researchers noted.

The study, at Arizona State University, involved 77 students in grades 3 and 4 from a high-achieving private school and an average-performing public school. Obesity rates were 24% and 39% at the two schools, respectively.

During the 2013-14 school year, the students participated in a five-week running and walking club two mornings a week between approximately 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. Students wore pedometers and had to accumulate at least five minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity during each session, which lasted about 15 to 20 minutes. Afterwards, they headed straight to class, where their behavior during the first 45 minutes was observed and rated. Each student was observed for at least three minutes of the class.

On average, the private-school students were on-task about 61% of the time on nonexercise days and 77% on days they exercised before class, the study found. Public-school students were on-task 63% and 78% of the time during nonexercise and exercise days, respectively.