If you’ve ever told your kids to quit playing around and do their homework, here’s something to think about. While hitting the books is important, encouraging your kids to hit a ball around the yard might be just as necessary. Research shows that regular exercise can help children succeed in school.

In addition to the health benefits of regular physical activity, a growing body of research indicates that the brain benefits tremendously, as well. Cardiovascular exercise has been linked to better performance in math and reading and on IQ tests, according to Natalie Muth, a pediatrician, registered dietician, and spokes-woman for the American Council on Exercise. “It’s also really effective for working memory and problem-solving,” she says.

Physiologically speaking, physical movement increases blood flow to the brain as well as the flow of oxygen, and it contributes to the growth of nerve cells in the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. All the evidence supports physical activity’s advantages, but unfortunately, many kids these days simply aren’t getting enough physical activity during school hours.

If your child doesn’t get 60 minutes of exercise each day at school or in after-school sports, the ball may be in your court to make up the difference at home. The good news is that it’s possible to incorporate fitness into even the busiest of days.

“You need to concentrate on keeping their feet moving more than anything else,” says Kristy Hilton, a physical education professor at the University of Southern California. “It’s also got to be fun or kids won’t want to do it.”

A former K-12 PE teacher herself, Hilton suggests throwing paper plates on the floor and having kids put a foot on each plate to slide around and dance to music. Encourage silliness, because even boys who are uninterested in dance will still leap and move around to the beat of a good song. Simple equipment like a Hula-Hoop or a jump rope provide fun activities sure to get kids’ heart rates up, and both can be used indoors or out. Walks around the neighborhood are great, perhaps with a family dog. If you’re feeling ambitious, you might arrange a scavenger hunt to find nature items.

One thing Muth has noticed is that the mere act of going outside makes a child more active. “You don’t have to organize or schedule what it is they’re going to do. Just get them outside and kids will move,” she says. The result might be a crazy game of freeze tag or hopscotch, climbing a snowbank, or jumping into piles of leaves.

The point is that limiting kids’ screen time and getting them up and out of the house automatically translates into increased physical activity. If bad weather keeps you inside, try setting up an indoor obstacle course or leading a session of “animal yoga”—having kids strike poses resembling various animals. Even a round of Simon Says will do in a pinch. Another idea: Inject an element of competition into the activity by, for example, seeing how many times kids can go up and down a flight of stairs in a minute.

Weekends present more opportunities for families to be active together. Depending on where you live, choose an activity that’s easy to arrange. If you have snowshoes or cross-country skis at the ready, set off on a course. If there are hiking trails nearby and the weather is good, pack a picnic and start trekking. Or perhaps a simple game of touch football in the backyard is all you need to get your child’s heart pumping.

Capitalize on the brain benefits that physical activity provides and try working in some additional ways for your children to be active during after-school hours. Not only will it boost their academic success, it will also deliver a valuable side benefit—more time together as a family.


Get Moving Before School

One way to schedule more physical activity into your child’s day is to do something before school, whether it’s walking or biking to school or joining an organized activity. In addition to boosting a child’s brain power, exercising before school has the added benefit of reducing behavior problems during class.

That’s why a group of moms created a curriculum-based before-school exercise program called Build Our Kids’ Success, an initiative of the Reebok Foundation. Through the program, elementary students arrive at school about an hour early, two or three times a week. Trainers, often parents or school staff members, lead students in classes that include a running activity, time to practice a skill like sit-ups or squats, an organized game, and a few minutes of free play.

BOKS provides free lesson plans and training for adult leaders, as well as awards startup grants to cover the cost of equipment and supplies. For more information or to apply for a grant, visit www.bokskids.org.

Freelance writer June Allan Corrigan is a mother of two and a former kindergarten teacher who still substitutes on occasion. She resides with her family in La Quinta, Calif.