OPINION | Active children perform better - why exercise should be included in the school curriculum

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"An improvement in academic results can be seen after engaging in physical activity".
"An improvement in academic results can be seen after engaging in physical activity".

Dr Eileen Africa, a senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University and Catherine Coupar, National Junior Member Manager at Virgin Active South, share their take on the developmental benefits of getting children moving and cultivating a love of exercise and well-being.


Children spend so much time at school, making it an ideal and safe environment for them to get active either before, during or after the school day. This can include participating in team sports, extracurricular activities, physical education classes, or active playtime at home.

However, the pandemic brought with it online classes and homeschooling that saw a drastic decline in physical activity and an increase in sedentary behaviours as teachers, parents and students adjusted to this new lifestyle.

Many children were no longer active for at least 60 minutes throughout the day as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

While the relationship between physical inactivity and obesity is fairly evident these days, the hugely beneficial aspects of regular movement, exercise and active play were largely underestimated until parents started spending more time with their children and saw the results for themselves. 

Also see: Local school encourages children to tackle challenges of climate change 

'Physical activity positively impacts brain function' 

An active lifestyle is essential for children's physical growth and disease prevention. It also positively impacts their health and well-being later in life.

Numerous studies show positive correlations between moderate physical activity of any kind and children's mood and emotional well-being and their physical, cognitive, psychological and social development.

Physical activity positively impacts brain function, reflexes and reaction times as well as creative skills. In fact, an increase in physical activity and longer weekly exercise routines are associated with higher intelligence and emotional development during childhood.

Recent research has shown that active children also perform better at school. An improvement in academic results can be seen after engaging in physical activity; children show improved brain functions, find it easier to concentrate on school-related tasks (which enables learning and memory), and show improved mathematics, reading, writing and spelling skills.

The best academic results were recorded when physical education classes were scheduled before lunchtime rather than later in the day.

'Children will most likely sleep better and feel more rested' 

The science also shows that exercise releases endorphins and serotonin – those 'feel-good' hormones that leave us feeling happier and rejuvenated.

When activities are done outdoors, in the sunshine and fresh air, our bodies also absorb much-needed Vitamin D, which reduces feelings of depression. An added benefit is that children will most likely sleep better and feel more rested.

Physical activity also leaves children feeling less stressed, gives them better problem-solving abilities and helps them see a challenging homework assignment with fresh eyes. 

As children become fitter and stronger through play, active games and physical activity, they learn new skills, which helps to build self-confidence around their abilities and leaves them with a sense of pride in their accomplishments. 

Also read: Stuck on what to pack in your child's school lunchbox? Here are nutritious and affordable options 

'Age-appropriate physical activity'

All of this is reason for teachers, parents and caregivers to thoughtfully integrate age-appropriate physical activity across the school curriculum and throughout the day to help aid learning.  

By developing healthy exercise habits in children from an early age, parents can help their children form lifelong routines.

Encouraging children to join a team sport at school or a club will not only give them a sense of belonging, but it will teach them the importance of teamwork and communicating with others for a shared positive outcome.

Another way to encourage a healthy lifestyle is to lead by example. Evidence shows that parenting practices are associated with how children prefer to play.

While it's often challenging to pry them away from iPads, TVs and cellphones, you can do this by organising a fun daily family activity that involves movement, such as skipping over the sprinkler, gardening, a treasure hunt or obstacle course in the garden, walking the dogs in the park, tree climbing, hiking, playing tennis, riding a bicycle, roller skating, ice skating or dancing.

Turn household chores and children's responsibilities into a game or challenge that they have to complete while giving them praise for successful tasks completed. This is also an ideal way to spend quality time with your children. 

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