This month marks the fifth anniversary of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative aimed at raising a generation of healthy kids. An important component of that platform is physical activity, which we support at GEMS Worldwide Academy—Chicago. In our Extended Learning Program—which is incorporated into the curriculum of a school day—students can choose to participate in such sports as fencing, swimming and taekwondo.

And while everyone agrees that healthy habits are an important component of a child’s development, studies also show that participation in organized sports—as part of a school curriculum—can actually improve classroom performance.

A 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which synthesized the results of 50 studies linking school-based sports and academic performance, found “substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement.” The study suggests a direct “association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance, including indicators of cognitive skills and attitudes, academic behaviors, and academic achievement. “

Once you know this data exists, it’s easy to link the correlation through observation. If a student spends midday time acquiring fencing skills, the brain becomes sharpened by the precise, calculated movements required to master the art. With taekwondo, the focus on patience and discipline becomes ingrained. And with swimming, the complex cognition required to coordinate arm and leg movements with controlled breathing works multiple parts of the brain at once. When students return to the classroom, their minds are already primed and on track to excel.

As an added incentive, these guided physical activities produce stress-reducing and mood-boosting chemicals to help students transition from sports to academics with enthusiasm. And as the muscles contract and relax, blood flow increases, which provides nourishment to the brain.

Additionally, the skills-building inherent in organized sports helps students to acquire the ability to overcome frustrations and to become comfortable with trying new approaches, both of which are key components in the process of learning and applying intellectual concepts.

In an article for Edutopia, American Sports Institute president and former San Francisco Giants psychologist Dr. Joel Kirsch advocates the integration of organized sports (and the arts) into an educational curriculum for students as a way to “prepare them to learn and achieve in academic courses.” The focus on guided practice in curriculum-based athletics, Kirsch contends, gradually and subconsciously trains students to successfully manage the rigors of academics. His opinions are supported by results studies done on pilot programs he’d helped implement during the 1990s in California and Chicago.

“Accomplished athletes learn patience and perseverance, how to stay positive when everything is caving in around them, self-control, tolerance, compassion, humility, and self-assertiveness,” Kirsch says. When these learned traits are linked to academics, Kirsch has found, students flourish.

One reason this happens is that these capabilities are not only crucial to attaining academic success, they’re a vital factor in a child’s aptitude to adapt to and navigate other life challenges—and to envision, create and achieve their future goals. As students improve their physical and mental health through guided, school-based sports, they’re also building character. And when you provide the opportunity for your child to simultaneously develop good character, a quick mind and a healthy lifestyle, you give your child the key to the most important traits they need to grow into leader.

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