The human genome (our genes) has changed very little over the last 10,000 years. How we live our lives has changed dramatically over that time and particularly in the last 50 years. A day in the life of a child growing up in the 1920’s would be completely different to one growing up the 1960’s and would bear almost no resemblance to a child growing up today. Yet a child growing up in the 1620’s may have had a similar experience to one in even the 1820’s.

The two biggest changes are of course what we eat and how much movement we get. This affects adults as we see with rates of obesity and other lifestyle related diseases. It also impacts on children and can have unexpected consequences.  In turn people then tend to look everywhere for the answer rather than where it actually lies.

The most “visible” affect our children of a diet high in processed foods and a lack of activity is the increasing rate of diagnosis of ADHD. The improvements seen with putting the right fuels into little bodies and allowing them to run around like, well…children is often dramatic.

There are more subtle effects too. A report presented to the American Heart Association showed that children who are fitter do better in school. Assessments on test scores in math’s science and social studies were made in year 5 and followed up in year 7 in a West Virginian county. The children who did best in their test scores had the highest levels of fitness. Those who improved their fitness, by and large improved their scores over the two years. This does not mean they were Olympic athletes. It basically meant they did some regular sport or physical activity. Another study in California on high school students found exactly the correlation.

Showing the practical application of this, a school near Chicago has made gym class the first session of the day to “kick start” the brains. The Napperville School also has bikes and balls in the classroom to keep the children on the move. According to the University of Illinois, children do 10% better at problem solving after a 30-minute stint on the treadmill. Exercise makes the brain “ready to learn” and   it is good for attention.

The results speak for themselves. Reading and mathematics scores are up significantly. Exercise has got to be better for children than Ritalin and of course there are other benefits as well.

A study looking at children with genes “associated with obesity” found that in the group which did regular exercise, the gene did not express itself. In other words even if one has genes, which may predispose to obesity (and remember our genes have not really changed in 10,000 years for most of which time obesity was not a problem) then regular exercise overcomes it.

This fits completely with the growing understanding that genes are like light switches. Presence or absence means less than whether they are switched on or off. And what influence whether genes are switched on or off? Our lifestyles and in particular stress, diet and exercise.

So the answer to better grades is the same as the answer to obesity and to a large degree the answer to attention problems. The answer is not complex. The answer is not in a pill. The answer is regular exercise and healthy eating patterns.