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Physiotherapy helping children's brains as well as their bodies

Photo: Australian Physiotherapy Association
Physical activity in children has been linked to improved scholastic performance, following two separate studies conducted to analyse the impact of exercise in children and youth.

The Copenhagen Consensus Statement and the Active Brains study, both confirm that time taken away from study in favour of physical activity does not negative impact academic results.

In fact, the studies suggest that increased physical activity will actually improve academic prowess in children.

The results do not come as a surprise to Dr GEnevieve Dwyer, senior lecturer at
Western Sydney University and member of the Australian Physiotherapy Association.

“The Copenhagen Consensus Statement and research such as the Active Brains Project simply affirm what has been a well-held view from experienced researchers in the field that physical activity stimulates brain activity,” said Dr Dwyer.
“Active play - be it unstructured games, or organised sports - requires not just neuro-motor coordination of movement but planning, strategizing, creatively responding to environmental as well as social cues, not to mention the social interaction.”

In addition to the impact on the brain and other parts of the central nervous system, physical activity develops the health-related components of fitness, so children are able to concentrate for longer periods. 

“For some children, they are so unfit just sitting still and focusing takes a lot of effort and energy and so they experience ‘cognitive fatigue’.

“Therefore it makes sense that interventions which facilitate increased physical activity and fitness, and in turn an increased ability to concentrate, may well explain the higher academic achievements noted – one might think of it as being ‘fit to learn’.”

Dr Dwyer said this important research comes at a time when parents are increasingly focused on academic achievement and the messages relating to the importance of physical activity are starting to lose some impact.

“One of the potential barriers to children being physically active was parental, even societal focus upon educational achievement,” she said.

“The pattern has been increasingly emerging for children to be enrolled in extra-curricular coaching and often this has been at the expense of engaging in unstructured physical activity.

“So changing the focus to examining how physical activity can actually promote academic performance is a means to regain attention to the area and to flag the other important benefits of children being active.”

Dr Dwyer said physiotherapists must ensure assessment of physical activity and sedentary behaviours is fundamental to practice – not just a potential add-on after main care has been provided.

“There is perhaps a tendency to focus upon assessment and addressing impairments and hence a focus on an individual’s capacity to move, but not necessarily taking the further step to ensure that capacity is actually translated into actual positive habits.

“An area to consider is that of anticipatory guidance management, which is when a child and their family might seek assistance for a health concern or physical issue but we can see that there may be other issues as well.

“As primary health practitioners we should take the opportunity to address what is potentially the greater longer term health issue.

“If you can achieve incremental changes, keeping the child and family empowered to make those changes, then that action could have more far-reaching health outcomes than advice about the feet or legs.”

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.