Originally published Oct. 20, 2021 in the AAP News & Journals Gateway.

By Rachel Y. Moon, MD

Many school systems, in an effort to improve academic outcomes for students, have been decreasing time for physical education. Additionally, for many children, there are fewer opportunities outside of school for physical activity.

There is growing evidence that physical activity enhances academic outcomes. But is all physical activity equal?

This week in Pediatrics, we are early releasing an article by Dr. Kenji Takehara at the University of Tsukuba and colleagues in Mongolia, Japan, and Thailand, entitled “Exercise intervention for academic achievement among children: a randomized controlled trial.”

The authors explore the impact of a school-based, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) exercise intervention on academic achievement in 2,100 fourth graders in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia.

All elementary school students in Mongolia have physical education classes twice weekly. The fourth graders were randomized by school to either get the routine 45-minute physical education class or a 45-minute class that incorporated 20 minutes of HIIT (four 3-minute intervals, separated by 2-minute rest periods) accompanied by music.

The children in the HIIT classes showed an 8.4 point improvement in math and language scores, and this improvement was even more pronounced for students who did not live in urban neighborhoods. Apparently, students in urban neighborhoods in Ulaanbaatar have higher aggregate academic scores, and the authors suggest that HIIT could help to reduce disparities.

Even though this study was conducted in a developing country, there is still much that is applicable here in the U.S. and other countries. The next time your school board proposes cutting back on physical education, you can use this article to advocate for maintaining or increasing the time that students spend in physical activity.

Take a look at this interesting study. There are additional subgroup analyses, the results of which may surprise you.

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