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Boost math scores via physical activity?

Study looks at academic performance

December 23, 2013

INDEPENDENCE — Some sixth-grade students at Talmadge Middle School spent part of their math classes doing physical activity last year.

It was part of a study conducted with Western Oregon University health and physical education professor Gay Timken, who presented some of her findings to the Central School Board at its Dec. 16 meeting.

"There's plenty of research that says there are benefits to health, we all know that," Timken said. "And that includes mental health, it's not just about cardiovascular disease."

Physical activity also relieves depression, anxiety and stress, she said. But new research is looking at how physical activity affects academic performance and cognitive function.

"Two hours of math doesn't mean they are going to learn more," Timken said. "But when they have more time in physical education, kids' scores do not go down."

She said by being physically active, students can maximize and optimize school time.

The research involved two-hour math classes full of sixth-grade students — three classes in the morning and three in the afternoon. Each teacher had one class that participated in the physical activity exercises and one that did not, or a control class.

Timken said she and others from WOU wanted to not only see how well they did in math, but how well they were able to stay on task and how physical activity breaks affected student well-being.

Someone from Western would come and lead students in a 5- to 10-minute activity break, and show teachers how to lead the breaks themselves.

"In some cases, on nice days, teachers would take their class down to the track," Timken said. "They would spend maybe 20 minutes of a class period — that's 20 minutes less of math instruction."

Students recorded steps and activity in a log during the study.

Each student took a standardized test at the start of the research project and again at the end.

Results showed all students improved in math, but those who had physical activity mixed in improved as much or more compared to those who did not, in spite of having less math instruction time.

In fact, those who had the physical activity improved 0.41 points in their grades, while those in the control group improved just slightly, at 0.05 grade-point average.

"On-task behavior improved, math improved," Timken said. "Physical activity breaks did not interfere with learning math, and may have helped."

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