Can physical exercise really improve reading ability?

Bouncing on a gym ball, spinning round, and other physical exercises can help improve the reading ability of children at risk of dyslexia. That’s according to David Reynolds and Roderick Nicolson, whose latest claims have attracted robust criticism from other experts in the field.

A few years ago, 35 children at risk of dyslexia (six with an actual diagnosis), aged between seven and ten years, were recruited and tested on a range of mental and physical tasks. For six months, 18 of these children then undertook 5-10 minutes of exercise therapy twice daily, every day; the remaining children acted as a control group. The exercise children subsequently showed larger improvements (relative to the average ability for their age group) in dexterity, postural stability and some aspects of reading, than did the control group.

Now Reynolds and Nicolson have published a follow-up study in which the original control group also received six months of exercise therapy (starting from the end of the first study), and with both groups then re-tested a year after that had finished. At this final testing, there were improvements (again, relative to average performance for their age) across both groups in some aspects of reading ability, but not others, as well as in dexterity and postural stability.

The researchers said the persistence of these improvements beyond the end of the exercise therapy, showed their initial findings were not down to a general feel-good effect (i.e. placebo) triggered by the exercises. They also said the fact that the initial control group have now shown improvements, undermines earlier claims that the original results were due to the initial control group having more serious reading problems than the initial exercise group.

Although the new findings don’t address the underlying processes, proponents of the exercise approach believe dyslexia may be associated with dysfunction in a region of the brain – the cerebellum – that is involved in physical coordination and learning. And they argue physical exercise may help dyslexia sufferers’ reading by improving function in this brain region.

“The research reported here confirms that the exercise treatment did indeed lead to lasting benefits, but the issue of why requires further studies”, the researchers said.

However, writing in the same journal, John Racks and colleagues said the lack of a placebo-controlled group; the paucity of children in the study actually diagnosed with dyslexia; and the misuse of statistical tests, fatally undermined the study findings. “We do not see how the current results have advanced our knowledge of the possible links between exercise-based therapies and academic achievement”, they said, also adding they had concerns about commercial involvement in the project.

Reynolds, D. & Nicolson, R.I. (2007). Follow-up of an exercise-based treatment for children with reading difficulties. Dyslexia, 13, 78-96.

Rack, J.P, Snowling, M.J., Hume, C. & Gibbs, S. (2007). No evidence that an exercise-based treatment programme (DDAT) has specific benefits for children with reading difficulties. Dyslexia, 13, 97-104.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

3 thoughts on “Can physical exercise really improve reading ability?”

  1. A teacher in Krakow, Poland has done extensive work in this area. One has to be able to read Polish to access her work.

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