Adding jumping jacks and running on the spot to math and language classes helps students to learn, say Dutch researchers, adding to findings on the benefits of physically active lessons.  

In Wednesday's issue of the journal Pediatrics, researchers compared standardized math and spelling test scores for 499 children who were randomly assigned to physically active math and language lessons or regular instructions for two years.

The students in the physically active group were four months ahead of the others in their spelling and math achievement, Marijke Mullender-Wijnsma of the Center for Human Movement Sciences at the University Medical Center Groningen and her co-authors found.

Students were age eight on average.

Those in the physically active group jumped in place for 10 to 15 minutes while reciting times tables or spelling words.

During the remainder of the 30-minute lessons, the children did basic movements.

"We saw that it really worked, of course — we were very enthusiastic about it and a little bit surprised," Mullender-Wijnsma said. "We didn't think we would find this big of an effect."

Best with memorization

But the researchers found no differences on reading scores. They think activity works better for subjects with a lot of memorization and repetition.

Previously, the large-scale U.S.-based study called Physical Activity Across the Curriculum or PAAC also reported students improved their academic achievements on standardized tests as well as positive effects on body mass index, say Sara Benjamin Neelon of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and her co-authors in a journal commentary published with the study.

The latest Dutch study adds to the increasing body of evidence in support of physically active lessons in schools, they said.

"Although there may be cause for cautious optimism, further research is required to assess the potential of these lessons to reach large populations and positively affect inequalities in health and educational attainment," the commentators said.

So far, students seemed to concentrate better with the physical activity, Mullender-Wijnsma said.

At Royal Orchard Middle School in Brampton, Ont., Grade 6 teachers Laura Badevinac and Dave Perkin have introduced a similar program called Actively in Motion or AIM.

"Most of our kids are active learners. They need to be hands on, they need to move around, in order to really engage," Badevinac said. They aren't all athletes. 

The day starts with 40 to 80 minutes of exercise, Perkin said. At the same time, the students collect data for math and science. For instance, a lesson on flight includes badminton examples of what makes the birdie fly through the air. 

"We're using sport and movement to actually teach the curriculum in as natural way as can occur," Perkin said.

Sixth-grader and AIM participant Rhea Hicks said her report card has improved from "OK" last year to all As. "Being able to do my academics with my physical abilities, it's like a dream come true," Rhea said. 

Expand program

The researchers speculate that adding physical activity might cause new blood vessels to form to improve cognitive performance.

While the Dutch team wants to expand the program to children aged nine to 12, not all teachers were as enthusiastic in embracing the approach.

"Some teachers were not fond of physical activity themselves," Mullender-Wijnsma said. "They find they are less motivated to teach these lessons."

The physically active lessons also need to be tested in children with special education needs. 

With files from CBC's Vik Adhopia