Monday, April 27, 2015

Exercise Matters--For the Body and Mind!
Which to Prioritize: Exercise or Test Scores?
Prianka Waghray, BS, MPH
April 2015

In January 2013, the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) cautioned against the loss of physical activity and recess in children’s school day.1  Furthermore, AAP stated that recess is as important to a child’s development as math or reading.  With obesity as the major risk factor for two of the top ten leading causes of death (heart disease and diabetes)2 our society has been shifting towards increasing physical activity in daily life.  Educational systems, on the other hand, are cutting out recess to make more time for test preparation.  Not only is regular exercise necessary to stave off diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, but it has also been scientifically proven to improve cognitive skills.  So why are we cutting out recess?

Where does Florida stand? Test scores vs Recess:

Schools around the nation are removing recess because of liability issues with injuries on the playground and to make more time to prepare for standardized testing.  Cutting out recess is an especially prominent issue in Florida due to the recent change in standardized testing with the introduction of Common Core exams in 2015.  Student performance on these exams often dictates teachers’ pay and sometimes even their jobs.3  This incentivizes teachers to spend more time on preparing the children for exams and they inadvertently  take that extra time from recess.

---"Because so much of the money is tied to the schools' scores and their grades, everybody's pressured,'' Diana Moore, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, told TODAY3 ----

The question is, should recess be sacrificed for just 20 extra minutes of test practice a day?  Numerous scientific studies have proven that physical exercise throughout the day is not only necessary from a health standpoint but also improves cognitive function and increases the child’s ability to focus. By removing physical exercise from the school day, schools are actually hurting their students’ chances of performing well on the Common Core exams.

Another concern schools have with giving recess is the issue of liability.  Due to fear of lawsuits, schools are shying away from offering recess instead of hiring more help for supervision on the playground.   Although liability is a valid concern, shouldn’t the overall well-being of the students come first?   

Benefits of recess

Recess as a daily routine for students allows them to develop social, emotional, physical and cognitive skills that are crucial for success in school and in society at large.4  Removing recess deprives children from experiencing a very important  learning opportunity.  Leading psychologists and exercise scientists have found that children experience the following benefits from daily recess:

  • Builds confidence in children
  • Builds socialization skills
  • Improves focus and attention in school
  • Improves strength, endurance, helps build healthy bones and muscles and helps  control weight
  • Reduces anxiety and stress
  • Increases self-esteem
  • Promotes psychological well-being

Scientific institutions such as the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP), the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Harvard University, among other institutions, have published numerous reports stating that students need at least one hour of physical activity during the school day and have encouraged schools to make P.E. a core subject.5   

According to CDC, regular exercise allows more efficient delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the brain and releases endorphins making children feel happier. Research supports that physical activity improves children’s attentiveness and decreases restlessness.6  In the past few decades more and more students have been diagnosed with ADD and other attention disorders.  These disorders may actually be caused by lack of exercise, in which case we are unnecessarily medicating our children.  With the advent of video games, television, computer games, ipads and other technology children have been spending less and less time playing outside.  Families face a difficult challenge encouraging sedentary children to get active and fitting exercise into already over-loaded evening routines. School should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Schools should not remove what is potentially a child’s only opportunity in the day to play outside by eliminating recess.  

In Harvard University professor John Ratey’s 2009 book Spark he highlights the numerous benefits of recess from a neuroscience perspective.7  According to Ratey, exercise is highly correlated with neurogenesis (the production of new brain cells) and neurogenesis is correlated with improved learning and memory.7  In other words, exercising at a young age is vital to increasing a child’s ability to learn and remember critical skills.  Additionally, other scientists such as Ratey have discovered that play is an active form of learning, and the learning that is achieved on the playground is simply not possible in a structured classroom.  

Is there a solution?

Given that recess is vital to a child’s development, what can we do about it?  The first place a parent can start is by looking for a school that prioritizes physical education and unstructured recess during school time.   Wellington Collegiate Academy, an up-and-coming private school in Wellington, Florida, has made daily physical activity or daily physical exercise one of their founding principles.  WCA is an affordable, independent middle school that is bringing recess back in grades 6-8. (for more information about WCA please visit

Parents and educators need to take a firm stand on the issue of recess. We know it benefits our children’s health, improves emotional well-being, increases ability to focus, and boosts test scores. Let’s take a stand and bring recess back into our kids’ daily routine at school.


1. American Academy of Pediatrics.  2013
3. Center for Disease Control. 2015