Can Exercise Close the Achievement Gap?

Just 12 minutes of aerobic exercise can boost low-income college students’ academic performance. The effect is large enough to close the achievement gap.
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Students practice choreography for a fitness video. (Photo: Holly Krake/Wikimedia Commons)

Students practice choreography for a fitness video. (Photo: Holly Krake/Wikimedia Commons)

Ever seen a teacher or camp counselor make the whole class do jumping jacks before beginning a lesson? It wasn’t just a ploy to exhaust the kids hyped up on Pixy Stix.

A 2012 study showing the academic benefits of short spurts of aerobic exercise for low-income kids sparked a movement among primary schools to add more exercise to the school day.

The results were so convincing that study co-author Michele Tine, a researcher at Dartmouth College, decided to test the same intervention on college-age students. The most recent paper, published this week in Frontiers in Psychology, showed that just 12 minutes of aerobic exercise could increase attention and reading comprehension for all students. Most importantly, the effect was so strong for low-income students that the exercise effectively closed the pre-existing gap between scores of low-income and high-income students.

In the new study, 85 participants aged 17 to 21 were separated into high-income (above 175 percent of the federal poverty line) and low-income (below 133 percent) groups. They were randomly assigned to experimental or control conditions.

While the pre-test indicated that low-income students lagged behind high-income students in attention scores, low-income students’ scores improved so much after exercise that the gap was effectively erased.

The experimental group jogged in place for 12 minutes while staying within their individual target heart rate range. The control group sat and watched a 12-minute video about the benefits of exercise.

The study measured students’ selective visual attention (SVA), or the ability to focus on visual targets while ignoring irrelevant stimuli. It’s well established that SVA is essential to academic learning. Students took SVA tests before the exercise or video, immediately afterward, and 45 minutes after that.

All participants who exercised saw significant improvement in SVA scores from pre-test to post-test, while control group scores held steady. The exercise group sustained their high scores even after 45 minutes—a common duration for high school and college courses, Tine notes. The findings extended to reading comprehension scores, as well.

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While the pre-test indicated that low-income students lagged behind high-income students in SVA, low-income students’ scores improved so much after exercise that the gap was effectively erased.

So why did exercise have a much larger effect on low-income students? One theory is that low-income students simply had more room to improve. Tine hypothesizes that chronic stress was a major factor. Chronic stress and aerobic exercise both affect the same physiological systems, and the chronic stress of poverty has been shown to affect cognitive processes. Students who reported higher chronic stress levels saw greater SVA score improvement than those who reported less chronic stress. And, unsurprisingly, low-income students tended to have higher chronic stress than high-income students.

This study represents a significant breakthrough for educators trying to improve outcomes for low-income college students—the intervention is brief enough and cheap enough to be realistically implemented. Twelve minutes of exercise could not only keep college students awake during lecture and help them burn off last night’s Cup o’ Noodles, it could also shrink the persistent achievement gap that plagues American education.

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