Ideas Exchange: Given the Recent Media Attention on Cognitive Outcomes, Such as Academic Achievement and Its Relation to Physical Activity, How Should This Information Be Applied to Our Advocacy Efforts? Take a Position Relative to the Physical, Cognitive, or Both

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It is unfortunate and shortsighted that today's school buildings and the programs in them are aimed at the top five inches of a child's body and designed primarily to produce a sedentary populace. I believe it is also shortsighted for physical educators to jump on the cognitive bandwagon. Exercise does increase blood flow to the brain, but there is no evidence related to the frequency, duration, intensity, or mode of exercise that is needed to improve a child's standardized academic achievement or IQ score.

Most of the research relative to academic achievement has been concerned with physical fitness, not physical activity or exercise. While the results generally show that physically fit children perform better in school, the studies are correlational. Meanwhile physical activity is a process variable, and until recently has not been measured. Only a few quality studies have been done to date (e.g., Sallis et al.) and they generally show that increasing the amount of physical education does not detract from scores on standardized academic achievement tests. Studying the effects of physical activity on academic achievement, however, is complex, and an expensive longitudinal event. No agencies are ever likely to provide the amount of money needed to conduct a quality randomized trial solely using academic achievement as an outcome variable. In the interim there are several good studies (e.g., Mahar et al.) that have shown that physical activity throughout the school day contributes to academically-related behaviors (e.g., increased attention during school).

Let's not wait for that pot of money to fall from the sky or base our programs on limited research. Rather, let's promote physical education and other physical activity programs for the positive outcomes we know they do best--develop physical fitness, physical skills, and health, and when conducted properly provide socialization and fun. At least one part of schooling should focus on the whole child.

Thomas L. McKenzie, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus, School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences

San Diego State University

As a curriculum specialist for health and physical education within my school district, I interact daily with my counterparts who represent all other subject areas--reading, writing, math, science, social studies, art, music, world language, business, career/technical education, and family/consumer science. We share many common job responsibilities; however, as you might expect, each of us serves as a major advocate for our respective curriculum areas. It should also come as no surprise that we "non-core" curriculum area specialists find advocacy a much more important part of our duties than those representing the "core" areas.

At times it is advantageous for the "non-core" areas to band together and stress our significant roles in supporting the overall academic achievement of students. Certainly, music, art, world language and other areas can all cite research that their instruction promotes achievement in the "core" subjects, just as we in physical education assert that participation in physical activity may improve attention, focus, behavior, and learning in the classroom. This approach tends to keep physical education on par with these other subjects. However, it does not distinguish our field or provide any real advantage when more resources are sought for the "core" subjects.

Physical education is the only subject taught in schools that directly involves the physical domain. When we focus our advocacy on this unique characteristic, we can set physical education apart from the crowded schedule of subjects that schools teach. With the attention given to physical activity in recent years, schools should not be allowed to ignore their significant role in providing opportunities for youth to be educated physically.

We should take advantage of the spotlight on the importance of physical activity by promoting our unique ability to deliver education OF the physical, while continuing to acknowledge our important role in education THROUGH the physical. …