Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Quick Studies

DSC_0003_-_Flickr_-_USDAgov

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

Can Exercise Close the Achievement Gap?

• June 13, 2014 • 11:21 AM

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

Just 12 minutes of aerobic exercise can boost low-income college students’ academic performance. The effect is large enough to close the achievement gap.

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.

college aerobic exercise

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.

Bettina Chang
Associate Digital Editor Bettina Chang previously directed editorial content at HomeStyle and Real Estate Weekly. A Chicago native, she serves on the board of directors for Supplies for Dreams, working to improve education outcomes for Chicago Public Schools students. Follow her on Twitter @bechang8.

More From Bettina Chang

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.