One of the current strategies for working with children classified as ADD or Attention Deficit Disorder is to give them more physical activity. The research shows that kids with ADD have smaller frontal lobes of the brain and thus they tend to struggle with focus and lean toward being more impulsive. Many of these children outgrow their behaviors as they continue to grow and their brain develops and matures. We also know that aerobic exercise releases chemicals that help in the development of those frontal lobes. A short bout of exercise can alter the chemical balance of the brain and can change our sour disposition to more genial and help us to be more focused. We’ve known this for years, hence the invention of the study break, the walk to the water cooler or the advent of corporate fitness centers in office buildings. Now the science backs up what we knew. But let me return to the point: repeatedly applying this concept of exercise to enhance focus can lead to permanently enhancing the efficiency of, not only the frontal lobes, but our bodies as a whole. Our frontal lobes do not fully develop until about age 25. That means up until then we tend naturally to be more impulsive, sometimes irrational, sometimes foggy or unfocused and sometimes inattentive. (Insurance companies knew this before the research by their tracking of data about who has auto accidents and when and why accidents occur. There was a sharp decrease after age 25 (as the frontal lobes mature) and thus they became less of a risk).
Science is also showing that academics are directly affected by sports and physical activity even more than we thought. Going back to the ancient Greek’s philosophy of a sound mind in a sound body; we seem to have always assumed that the 2 go hand in hand. But now by research we know that it is true. A study by the California Department of Education in 2001 compared standardized testing scores of physically active kids and inactive kids. The physical children had far out-performed their inactive counterparts by a large margin. This study was duplicated in Australia and Hong Kong and both with identical results. The verdict was in: being in sports and physical activity not only increased the rate and efficiency of brain development but it improved learning and retention over all.
In another study conducted by Ralph Barrett (Nashville) indicated that repetition and development of specific motor skills such as balancing, catching and activities that require a child to use quick eye-hand coordination skills will integrate sections of the brain and enhance reading skills. We know then that applied gymnastics and physical skills not only create a more efficient physical body but will lead to better comprehension in reading and thus improve grades and retention of information. Again, looking into our collective personal experiences, it confirms a North Carolina study that correlates grade point and graduation rates higher in both measures for the athletes in school than for the non-athletes. Further research in psychology, education and neuroscience all point to the similar conclusions: Physical activity does enhance academic performance.
I have spoken on many occasions about the benefits of gymnastics for children and though many sports involve coordination, eye-hand skills, balance, strength and flexibility; no sport offers them to the extent that gymnastics does. Gymnastics forms a foundation for other sports and activities to build upon. I cannot tell you how many of my former gymnasts have gone on to excel in soccer, softball, track, diving, or other sports. And not only that, in the last 30 years I have coached 3 doctors, 2 physical therapists, 2 lawyers, 6 teachers, 2 Physician’s assistants, 2 software engineers, 8 business owners, 2 architects, 3 university professors, a police detective, many accountants, numerous nurses, many lab scientists and 1 engineer whose invention was included on the space shuttle (a zero gravity fire extinguisher). Of course when I had them they were all just gymnasts. And, what’s more, there are more success stories in the making.
Research and personal experience concur that there is a defined connection between physical activity and academic performance. We see it from the improved status of ADD kids getting fit to the performance and graduation rates of school children aand all the way to the high achievements of gymnasts. As a coach and parent, I encourage you to get your kids active on a consistent basis. You will improve their mind, their body and their chances for success.