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PE Advocates Argue Gym Benefits Not Just Health, But Academics Too

Lisa Miller

Kids used to go to gym a few times a week, but that’s not the norm anymore.  It varies greatly depending on your district.  Physical education has taken a hit as schools feel greater pressure to boost reading and math scores.  But now PE advocates are making the case that more time in the gym has academic benefits.

Physical education is great for working off some steam, getting the heart rate up and improving hand-eye coordination.  But it may actually help kids read and learn math. 

Research shows moving around is not just good for the muscles, but also for the brain.  Jean Blaydes is a former PE teacher who now travels the country helping schools add more movement into the day.  She says exercise doesn’t make you smarter, but it does make it easier to learn. 

“The research shows a healthy, active child makes a better learner, that a quality physical education class can actually prime and prepare the mind for learning and they’ll be more ready to learn and more productive,” says Blaydes. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services analyzed several studies and concluded that there’s substantial evidence to show physical activity can pay off in higher test scores, more focus, and a better mood. 

Matt Belles oversees physical education programs for CMS. He has a poster in his office that reads, “If the bum is numb, the brain is too.”

 The district requires 45 minutes of PE a week for elementary students and 60 minutes a week for middle-schoolers.  The state suggests about three times that amount of PE per week.  Half of the state’s districts say they’re actually doing that. 

Belles has become a salesman of sorts for adding more PE and movement.

“With the growing needs for math scores, science scores and reading scores, it seems like the conversations we have across the district are really being shaped by how we provide these opportunities for our students,” says Belles.

Most principals he talks with buy into the academic pay-off of physical activity, but they have a lot to juggle.  Schools are under more pressure to improve reading and math scores.  With the introduction of No Child Left Behind in 2002, many schools across the country reduced or even did away with PE and recess time to pack in more classroom instruction.     

Jordy Sparks, the principal at Bruns Academy in West Charlotte is a big believer in the benefits of physical activity, but he says there isn’t enough time for more PE.  He’s got extra reading instruction to fit in and 30 minutes of recess a day mandated by the state. 

“It benefits students to have time to be able to release and time to be physically active, but it’s also not the most important reason why they come to school each day, specifically with our students who we’re doing an incredible amount of work to catch them up,” says Sparks.

Smithfield Elementary in south Charlotte has figured out a way to make it work.   Principal Allison Harris says her students take a break every 20 minutes.  They’re called brain breaks.  Kids dance, maybe do a few calisthenics while counting by fives or saying their multiplication tables.  She says kids are more engaged and teachers actually feel like they fit more reading and math into the day.