Students who are fit—based on their high aerobic capacity and low body fat—also tend to perform well in school and on standardized tests.

In addition to regular exercise, brief periods of movement such as jumping or stretching can help improve children’s concentration.

Exercise may turbocharge the brain by raising levels of neuronal growth factors, which foster the formation of new connections between brain cells.

Despite frequent reports that regular exercise benefits the adult brain, when it comes to schoolchildren, the concept of the dumb jock persists. The star quarterback stands in stark contrast to the math-team champion. After all, the two types require seemingly disparate talents: physical prowess versus intellect. Letting kids run around or throw a ball seems, at best, tangential to the real work of learning and, at worst, a distraction from it.

Parents, teachers and education policy makers have pitted athletics against academics even as they trumpet exercise as an antidote to obesity and poor health. From preschool onward, teachers encourage children to sit still rather than scamper. Many schools have cut back on physical education to make room for the three R’s. And when student scores on standardized tests become of primary importance to parents, politicians or other stakeholders in the education system, educators may feel pressured to direct students toward academic pursuits and away from athletic ones.