Motor Skills, Movement, and Math Performance Are Intertwined

Study identifies a correlation between motor-enriched learning and mathematics.

Learning mathematics while engaging the full body through physical movement can improve math performance for first graders, according to a new study from Denmark. The February 2017 study, “Motor-Enriched Learning Activities Can Improve Mathematical Performance in Preadolescent Children,” was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.  

The new findings from the University of Copenhagen's Department of Nutrition, Exercise, and Sports add fresh insights to a growing body of research on the correlation between motor skills, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), and academic performance. The Danish researchers also found that students reap the most benefits when mathematical learning and various types of movement are individualized.

In 2013, a study from Finland reported that children with poor motor skills also have poorer reading and arithmetic skills. The Finnish study found that children who performed poorly in agility, speed, and manual dexterity tests also had lower reading and arithmetic test scores in first through third grade. Conversely, children with better performance on motor-skill tests scored higher on reading and arithmetic tests. 

In a 2016 follow-up study, the Finnish researchers found that the combination of high levels of sedentary time (ST) and low levels of MVPA were correlated with an increased risk that 6- to 8-year-old boys would perform poorly in reading and arithmetic during grades 1-3 of elementary school.

These findings reinforce the findings of other research on ADHD which concluded that it's especially important to make physical activity an integral part of young boys' daily lives to help them stay focused in school. Physical activity helps children with ADHD think and perform better on tests. (To read more on this, check out my Psychology Today blog post, "Increasing Physical Movement Reduces Symptoms of ADHD.")

The new study from Denmark dovetails with the aforementioned research from Finland and is groundbreaking because it digs deeper into the nitty-gritty of the link between movement and cognition. The Danish researchers were curious to pinpoint what types of physical activity work best for improving academic performance. They also investigated what levels of aerobic intensity and physical exertion optimize learning. In a statement, head researcher and associate professor of integrated physiology Jacob Wienecke said,  

"The children learn more if they move and use the whole body to learn. Compared to previous studies which demonstrated that intense physical activity could improve learning outcomes, we have been able to show that lower intensity activities are just as effective, or even more effective, as long as movement is integrated into the topic at hand.

We need to keep this in mind when developing new forms of instruction. The new school reform focuses on, among other things, the incorporation of physical activity during the school day, with the aim of improving the motivation, well-being and learning of ALL children.

However, individual understanding must be taken into account. Otherwise, we risk an unfortunate combined outcome in which those who are already proficient advance, and those who have not yet mastered concepts cannot keep up."

The researchers are currently investigating which specific brain areas and motor systems are involved in these various learning strategies. They will also be testing how physical activity and motor-enriched learning has positive effects on other academic skills, such as reading.

Albert Einstein said of E = mc²,
"I thought of that while riding my bicycle." 
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Albert Einstein intuitively understood the link between physical movement and mathematics. When asked how he came up with his general theory of relativity, E = mc² (which is arguably the most famous mathematical equation of all time) Einstein quipped, “I thought of that while riding my bicycle.”

Einstein was notorious for taking long walks around Princeton, where he lived and worked for much of his career. He would also use his bicycle to commute and for recreation, most likely ruminating about math equations and how to solve complex riddles of quantum physics while pedaling along. In recent years, this type of anecdotal evidence that links intellectual performance, Eureka! moments, and physical activity has been corroborated by a wide variety of empirical research.

From a neuroscientific standpoint, multiple studies (on people of all ages) have concluded that moderate to vigorous physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness are associated with improved white matter integrity—which optimizes the functional connectivity and communication between brain regions. (I've written dozens of Psychology Today blog posts on this topic. Click on this link to read more.) 

Across the human lifespan, daily aerobic activity also influences the volume of gray matter in specific brain regions and is associated with improved cognitive functioning and creative output.

(As a side note: I have a hypothesis that many of the brain benefits of physical activity might stem from enhanced interconnectivity between both hemispheres of the cerebrum (Latin for "brain") and both hemispheres of the cerebellum (Latin for "little brain"). My speculation is that optimizing the structure and functional connectivity between all four brain hemispheres through physical activities can help to improve fine-tuned motor skills while simultaneously fine-tuning someone's thinking processes. This is just an educated guess on my part. That being said, my system of belief is inspired by Jeremy Schmahmann's extensive research at Harvard Medical School on ataxia and his "Dysmetria of Thought" hypothesis.) 

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