children playingJust 12 minutes of exercise can help young people focus and improve their reading comprehension, states a new study from Dartmouth College’s Poverty Learning Lab. The study indicates that students who do physical activity for short periods of time are better at paying attention after the activity. Low-income students demonstrated more improvement in attention and reading comprehension than high-income peers, suggesting that schools can implement frequent physical activity to help close the achievement gap between students of high and low socioeconomic status.

In 2012, the study’s author, Michele Tine, Ph.D., assistant professor of education and principal investigator at the Poverty Learning Lab, found that short bouts of aerobic exercise improved selective visual attention among children, with the low-income children improving the most. The present study followed up on this finding, but with older students. Adolescents aged 17 to 21 years from both low-income and high-income backgrounds participated in the study. They completed short physical activities and attention and reading assessments. The researchers evaluated the adolescents’ reading comprehension and selective visual attention. Selective visual attention is ability to stay visually focused on something despite distractions, which is important for classroom learning.

After just 12 minutes of exercise, the participants attention skills improved. The high- and low-income students both exhibited improvements, but the low-income students improved much more than their high-income peers. Low-income students also demonstrated improvements in reading comprehension skills after physical activity.

The results suggests that schools with a large population of low-income students should incorporate short periods of physical activity into the school day. This could help narrow the gap between low-income students and high-income students. Dr. Tine states that students from low-income households may respond differently to exercise because of the level of stress in their lives.

Low-income individuals experience more stress than high-income individuals and stress impacts the same physiological systems that acute aerobic exercises activates,” stated Dr. Tine, PhD. “Alternatively, it is possible that the low-income individuals improved more simply because they had more room to improve.”

This research is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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