Exercise could help children regulate emotion, perform better in school

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Students play ball during recess at an elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-MIlls)

Researchers in the U.K. have linked physical activity in schoolchildren to their ability to manage their emotions and behavior, finding that active students were, in turn, generally higher academic achievers. 

The findings of the study, published Wednesday in PLOS One, weren't necessarily surprising, Fotini Vasilopoulos, a researcher with the University of Cambridge and the study's lead author, told The Academic Times. Existing research shows that exercise benefits cognitive function in many ways that go beyond motor skills. But the new study provides further evidence that exercise could specifically help children excel in the classroom, shining new light on the developmental trajectory of young people who are more physically active than their peers. "Previous findings have not looked at such a long time scale, just because it's really difficult to collect data for a long time and for so many children," she said. 

The analysis is based on the Millennium Cohort Study, a longitudinal study of children born in 2000-2001 in the U.K. Drawing on reports from both parents and teachers, the researchers assessed how well more than 4,000 children were able to self-regulate their emotions and behavior at ages 7, 11 and 14. The researchers split the construct of self-regulation into emotional regulation, or the control of one's thoughts and feelings, and behavioral regulation, or the management of one's actions to achieve a goal. Physical activity was measured both subjectively, through self-report, and objectively, through movement sensors worn by participants during waking hours for week-long periods at both 7 and 14 years old.

The researchers first looked at the direct relationship between physical activity and self-regulation, finding that more active children had fewer mood swings and emotional outbursts, but they observed no corresponding impact on behavior. The effect of exercise on emotional regulation was strongest among 7-year-olds, suggesting that the ability to regulate emotion plays a larger role in early childhood. "Previous findings support that emotional regulation is more important in the early years than behavioral regulation, and we confirmed those findings, [showing] that physical activity influenced emotional regulation early on and behavioral regulation later," Vasilopoulos said. 

However, when the researchers controlled for socioeconomic status, the positive correlation between physical activity and emotional regulation evaporated, suggesting that wealth and advantage have a strong influence on how well children can control their emotions.

Then the researchers examined the indirect relationship between exercise and academic performance, finding that the effects of self-regulation varied between age groups. At age 7, academic progress was positively correlated with emotional self-control. By age 11, academic progress was more closely associated with behavioral self-control. And in both age groups, these effects were amplified among students of lower socioeconomic status.  Data on academic achievement was not available for 14-year-olds, as the Millenium Cohort Study shifted focus to mental health, language development and occupational aspirations in this age group. 

"Less advantaged children have fewer opportunities to join sports clubs or participate in activities like swimming and dancing, and even less access to safe open space," Vasilopoulos said. "Given what we've found, it's probably not the best thing to take away a safe space like recess, especially for less advantaged children." 

With schools gradually reopening in Europe and the U.S. amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Vasilopoulos says the study shows the importance of not sacrificing physical education, playtime and recess in the name of making up for lost studying time. "There is an indirect pathway by using physical activity to make those [academic] gains; it's not necessarily sitting at a desk and punching away at standardized tests," she said. 

The basis for Vasilopoulos' work is the concept of embodied cognition, which holds that the mind, body and environment are interlinked and influence each other. "It's not a matter of the brain being a computer," she said. "What's going on around you and what you physically do with your body develops the mind. It's not a brain by itself." 

Her interest in researching the mind-body connection was sparked by teaching children's yoga and dance as a master's student at Cambridge. "It was a particular kind of dance that wasn't copying and mimicking; it was really creative," she said. "These were young children in early elementary school, and it seemed to make a difference that there was this creative piece. So, that's where I saw something and decided I wanted to investigate." 

Vasilopoulos views her recently published study, which is correlational and does not establish causation, as the first step of a larger research project. The next step is a forthcoming meta-analysis that examines the qualitative aspects of physical activity that influence cognition and academic achievement in primary school-age children ages 5 to 7, such as quality of instruction, use of props and group versus individual exercise. 

The third step will be conducting a randomized controlled trial comparing people who take part in one of two types of physical activity that focus on the mind-body connection — yoga and dance — to those in a passive control group. That study will seek to establish a causal link between exercise, self-regulation and classroom performance. 

The study, "Investigation of the associations between physical activity, self-regulation and educational outcomes in childhood," published May 19 in PLOS One, was authored by Fotini Vasilopoulos, University of Cambridge and University of London; and Michelle R. Ellefson, University of Cambridge. 

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