Many people living in low-income neighborhoods don’t realize the shortcomings of their local supermarkets when it comes to food quality. People living in these neighborhoods are way more susceptible to obesity because of this food insecurity. Rather than buying fruits and vegetables, they end up with sugar-loaded processed foods. When combined with the stress associated with being in a low-income family, it’s a recipe for obesity and terrible school performance. A new study, however, shows that adolescents who exercise just 12 minutes a day can improve at least their school performance, and their health isn’t suffering more from it either.  

“Low-income individuals experience more stress than high-income individuals, and stress impacts the same physiological systems that acute aerobic exercise activates,” said study author Michele Tine, assistant professor of education at Dartmouth University, in a press release. In the same way that adults can relieve stress through exercise, teens can too, and they subsequently experience gains in visual attention and reading comprehension.

Tine and her team looked at 85 college students, ages 17 to 21, who came from varying economic backgrounds. All of them underwent reading comprehension and visual attention tests, as well as a stress-measuring survey. They were then split into either an exercise group or a control group. While the control group watched a 12-minute long video on the benefits of exercise, the other group was told to jog in place for 12 minutes.

Just one exercise session was enough to boost scores on reading comprehension and visual attention tests. Both low- and high-income exercisers saw improvements on their scores for as long as 45 minutes, but it was the low-income teens that bridged a wider gap — so much so that there was virtually no difference between low- and high-income scores. That’s a huge difference considering that the “disparity in educational attainment between low- and high-income adolescents has widened by more than 40 percent in the last 50 years,” the researchers wrote.

The findings are indeed promising, as 12 minutes a day is only a small portion of a teen’s waking time. The researchers couldn’t explain why low-income students had such vast improvement, but speculated that maybe they just “had more room to improve,” whereas high-income students experienced a “ceiling effect” on reading comprehension.

“The current study has clear educational implications,” the researchers wrote. They said that the study was structured in such a way that schools could easily replicate it. All they would need are a set of heart rate monitors to find the optimum activity level for each student. For parents who want their kid to go to the next level, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adolescents get at least 60 minutes of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise each day, including aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises.

Source: Tine M. Acute aerobic exercise: an intervention for the selective visual attention and reading comprehension of low-income adolescents. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014.