A recent study gives parents another valuable reason to help their children either become or stay physically fit. The current growing trend of inactivity among children is not only having an impact on their physical well-being but may also be impairing their learning ability.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign wanted to know if there was a connection between physical fitness and learning. Previous studies have found that out-of-shape kids tend to get lower grades in school and perform poorer on tests involving memory or other cognitive tasks.

For this study, researchers recruited 48 kids who were 9 or 10 years old and asked them to learn the names of 10 fictional regions on a made-up map.

Half of the children in the study ranked in the top 30% of fitness (as measured by a treadmill test) for kids their age and gender; the other half ranked in the bottom 30%. Other than that, the kids in both groups were basically the same in terms of socioeconomic status, ADHD symptoms and scores on an intelligence test. In both groups, about half were boys and half were girls.

The kids were given an iPad for studying and used a mobile app with the names and geographic locations of the 10 made-up regions. They spent one day reviewing the areas and in some cases, taking short quizzes. For some of the other areas, memorization was required. The next day they were tested to see how much they could remember.

Overall, the kids who were physically fit got an average score of 54.2% and the kids who were not fit got an average score of 44.2%. The difference was more pronounced when children were asked to remember the map they had learned without the benefit of quizzes. The fit kids scored 43% on average, while the unfit kids scored 25.8% on average.

The authors of the research drew the conclusion that “fitness can boost learning and memory of children and that these fitness-associated performance benefits are largest in conditions in which initial learning is the most challenging.”

They also speculated that being fit helped most when the kids were actually going through the process of committing something to memory and not as much when recalling that information later.

The authors also noted in their published report that “the findings in the present study are also important from an educational policy perspective. Reducing or eliminating physical education in schools, as is often done in tight financial times, may not be the best way to ensure educational success among our young people.”

The study was published online in the journal PLOS One.

Sources: Karen Kaplan, http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-physically-fit-kids-learn-better-memory-20130911,0,6326552.story