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Exercise Could Protect Students from Stress, Study Suggests

Students in a stressful situation—be it a week of standardized testing or a crime-filled neighborhood—might benefit from some extra running at recess or in P.E. class, suggests a new study.

The University of Helsinki, Finland, study, "Higher Levels of Physical Activity are Associated with Lower Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical Axis Reactivity to Psychosocial Stress in Children," finds that exercise can buffer children from the chemical effects of daily stress.

Researchers tracked the physical activity level of 252 8-year-olds using wrist accelerometers. They then assigned the students to mathematics and public storytelling tasks which had been shown to cause stress. The students in the top third most physically active showed no increase in the stress hormone cortisol during these tasks, but the most sedentary third of students had surges of cortisol in response to the activities.

"Clearly, there is a link between mental and physical well-being, but the nature of the connection is not well understood," said the study's lead author, Silja Martikainen of the University of Helsinki, in a statement. "These results suggest exercise promotes mental health by regulating the stress hormone response to stressors."

Why is a study to be published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism relevant to education? We're learning more and more about the damaging effects of sustained high stress on students' physical and mental health, social relationships, and academic engagement and success. Yet high-poverty and low-achieving schools—those that typically have disproportionate numbers of children exposed to high stress—also frequently come under pressure to cut back on recess and physical education in favor of more study time.

If physical activity can protect students from damage caused by stress, perhaps educators can squeeze a little more time to run in the school day.

The full study will be published in the April issue of the journal.

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