Remember when you were a kid and you spent your days outside’and you loved it? There wasn’t a lot of structure to it, you just went out there and didn’t come back until your mom or dad called you for lunch or the street lights went on. I miss those days. I don’t think my kids are having nearly the same type of creative, activity-driven childhood that I did. And that has to do with my parenting. I admit it, I often give up pushing them to get out there on weekends during the winter when I just want life to be peaceful. Plus, we do spend our week nights shuttling the kids to their activities and the weekends are full of hockey, basketball and skiing. So, yes, they are active, but it’s all structured. On the rare occasion that I can convince them to get out there in the snow they do love it, but with so little "free" time to do nothing they really aren’t that good at being creative about play. I remember hide-and-go seek, building snow forts and snow men, skating on a local pond (we had those back in the olden days) and best of all’tobogganing’for hours and hours with my friends. At the time I had no idea all the good this was doing me.
I reminisce about these things whenever I come across studies like the U.S.-based one in a recent edition of Health Psychology. It found kids who are overweight and sedentary and who start to be active (the study had kids exercise doing fun things like running games, hula hooping and jumping rope’not competitive sports’for either 40 or 20 minutes, or doing no exercise at all) score better on intelligence tests. Researchers say this type of exercise was linked to increased activity in the parts of the brain linked to complex thinking and self control (maybe Charlie Sheen didn’t do much playing outside as a kid!) and improvements in math skills.
The lead researcher on the study believes the results are due to neural growth and an increase in brain cells, which was previously seen in a similar study on mice. The more the kids exercised, the more their intelligence-test scores went up. Awesome. Those who exercised for 40 minutes a day had the greatest improvement, while those who exercised 20 minutes a day had smaller gains.
In Canada, the rate of overweight kids has more than doubled in the last 25 years (rates of childhood obesity have tripled). As a result, most schools now build in daily activity and there are more gym days throughout the week, but is it enough to counteract the amount of time kids spend being sedentary? It seems that by giving kids more opportunity to get outside throughout the day it becomes a win-win situation for the kids and the school (and parents, too). Not only are kids happier, healthier and better behaved after running around, but their brains are firing on all cylinders, too.