If you want a young person to focus intently in school and perform well on tests, should you first send him or her to gym class? That question, which has particular relevance for school districts weighing whether to reduce or ax their physical education programs to save money, motivated a number of stimulating new examinations into the interplay of activity and attention. Some of the experiments studied children; others looked at laboratory rats bred to have an animal version of attention deficit disorder. For both groups, exercise significantly affected their ability to concentrate, although some activities seemed to be better than others at sharpening attention.
The most striking of the new studies involved 138 schoolchildren ages 8 to 11 who were living in Rome. The children were physically healthy, and none suffered from serious attention deficits. But like most children that age, they found it difficult to remain fully engaged in their lessons as the school day wore on. As the study’s authors, all affiliated with the Foro Italico campus of the University of Rome, point out, children “who undergo prolonged periods of academic instruction often reduce their attention and concentration.”