Originally published Dec. 6, 2017 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


It’s no secret that physically active kids are healthier, but a state study released Wednesday found that they also do better on reading and writing, and even school attendance.

Fourteen schools in central and northern Minnesota each received $10,000 to implement three-year physical activity programs under a study conducted by the state’s departments of Health and Education.

studyMost schools went beyond merely beefing up the traditional physical education class. Instead, they incorporated physical activity throughout the day — before and after school as well as movement within the classroom.

Researchers found that students who were physically fit were much more likely to score better on state standardized tests. They were 27 percent more likely to be proficient in math and 24 percent more likely to be proficient in reading.

“We can’t prove that any one thing makes a difference, but over the last three years we have seen an improvement in test scores, in particular reading,” said Tim Lutz, superintendent of Kelliher Public Schools, whose elementary school students participated in the program.

Each school chose its own set of activities. At Kelliher, that included “active classrooms,” where students take two 10-minute breaks each day to move around, sometimes using internet programs such as GoNoodle. They also had before- and after-school activities such as running, yoga, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing — a natural fit for a school in northern Minnesota.

“Once kids have had that 10-minute break or run in the morning, we are finding that their brains are fired up and they are much more willing and capable to become focused again,” said Lutz.

Lutz also noted that discipline cases are down and attendance is up.

“They look more forward to school when it is more fun, and moving around is fun,” he said.

The study also found that even though not all kids were physically fit, students did not regress in terms of academic performance, health or activity participation — a finding that addresses concerns that activity time would detract from learning. “We are very confident that there are no adverse effects on academic success by investing in physical activity,” said Jennifer Pelletier, a research scientist at the Minnesota Health Department.

The research also found that school kids were eager to participate once they were given opportunities.

“Once students got exposed to the different options … they starting selecting and leading them themselves,” said Mary Thissen-Milder, active schools coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Education as well as the Health Department.

The state is currently drafting statewide standards for physical activity under a law passed in 2016. The state agencies also are providing assistance to schools to help them implement activity programs, including sharing results of the study.

“It is not that difficult to increase physical activity opportunities,” said Thissen-Milder. “There is such a connection between that and success and all educational outcomes.”

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