Are the fitter kids the smarter kids?
There is an increasing body of evidence indicating fitness and physical activity promotes better brain health and can increase academic performance in children.
Key points to note include:
- Regular physical activity can increase academic performance.
- Even single sessions of physical activity before a task can boost attention and memory.
- The intensity of activity is important to the level of benefit. Low intensity school PE classes may not be enough.
- Motor ability shows the strongest link to academic performance.
- Physical fitness from vigorous activity improves cognitive function in children. Executive function and brain health underlie academic ability.
1. Regular physical activity can increase academic performance
- In a 2012 review of 14 studies ranging from 50 to 12,000 students, it was concluded that there is a significant positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance. 1
- Joint research between the University of Canberra and the Australian National University in 2012 found that primary school students who keep physically active are more likely to have higher National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) test scores. There was strong evidence of positive relationships at the school level between the literacy and numeracy scores and cardio-respiratory fitness. 2
- In a US study comparing 2 years of public school data of students’ academic results in Mathematics and English assessment tests (between grades 4 to 8) with corresponding results of physical fitness tests pasts during Physical Education classes (PE), it was found that the odds of passing both the Maths and English tests increased as the number of fitness tests passed increased. 3
- Evidence from a large-scale population study of 4755 students in 2013 confirmed the long-term positive impact of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on academic achievement in adolescence.4
2. Even single sessions can boost attention and memory
- Findings from a study of 20 preadolescent children (average age 9.5 years) after a 20 minute exercise session on a treadmill showed an improvement in response accuracy and better performance on the academic achievement test than in the resting session beforehand. Results indicate that single, acute bouts of moderately-intense aerobic exercise (i.e. walking) may improve the cognitive control of attention in preadolescent children, and further support the use of moderate acute exercise as a contributing factor for increasing attention and academic performance.5
- In a study of grade 2 to grade 4 students on the effect of concentration from physical activity, it was determined that:
– for children in grades 2 to 3, a structured classroom activity or physical activity immediately before a concentration task was not detrimental.
– But for children in grade 4 after participating in physical activity, children performed significantly greater in a concentration task immediately following. 6
3. The intensity of activity is important to the level of benefit
- Children who participate in high to moderate intensity physical activity benefit the most. Physical education classes in schools do not always provide this level of activity and therefore benefits of more aerobic activity outside of school may provide better academic performance outcomes.
- In a study comparing 67 students in Spain taking the usual 2 PE classes per week (Group 1), versus, those taking 4 PE classes per week (Group 2) to another group taking 4 PE classes per week but at high intensity (Group 3), it was found that cognitive performance (non-verbal and verbal ability, abstract reasoning , spatial ability, and numerical ability) and academic achievement through school grades (eg. mathematics) increased more in Group 3 than Group 1. Overall Group 3 improved the most with no differences in the increase in Group 1 and Group 2. This study suggests that the intensity of physical activity has an increased effect on cognitive function and academic performance . 7
- In a US study of 214 grade 6 students it was found that academic achievement was not significantly related to physical education enrollment suggesting that “a threshold of activity intensity may be needed to bring about changes in the child that contribute to increased academic achievement.”“Improved academic performance was associated with vigorous activity obtained outside of school.” 8
4. Motor ability shows the strongest link to academic performance.
But exactly what component of physical fitness is directly to improved brain fitness?
- A study 9 of 2,038 Spanish children aged from 6 to 18 years tested the three areas of fitness:
a. Cardiorespiratory capacity (the measure of how well the heart and lungs can supply fuel and oxygen to the muscles during exercise) – through shuttle runs, also known as the” beep” test.
b. Motor ability (including speed of movement, agility and coordination) – this was also assessed through shuttle runs.
c. Muscular strength – through maximum handgrip and standing long jumps.
These were compared against end of year school grades in core subjects for academic performance.
- The results showed:
– The link between academic performance and physical fitness was strongest for motor ability suggesting that speed of movement, agility, and coordination may be more important for academic performance than aerobic fitness.
– Cardiorespiratory capacity was also linked to academic performance, but to a lesser extent.
– Muscular strength on its own was not linked to academic performance.
– The results also showed that children and adolescents who had both lower levels of cardiorespiratory capacity and motor ability had lower grades.
5. Physical fitness from vigorous activity improves cognitive function in children. Executive function and brain health underlie academic ability.
- In addition to the positive physical and mental health impact of physical activity, there is a strong belief that regular participation in physical activity is linked to enhancement of brain function and cognition 1011 ,thereby positively influencing academic performance.
- Aerobically fitter children perform better in tasks associated with cognitive function.12
- Evidence suggests that maths and reading are the main subjects influenced by physical activity as they depend on mental skills that help the brain plan, organise, prioritise, remember, pay attention, reason, problem solve and execute tasks with flexibility.
- A review of numerous studies examining the effects of exercise on children’s intelligence, cognition, or academic achievement concluded that physically fitter children perform cognitive tasks more rapidly, and that relatively short and specific aerobic exercise training interventions improve executive function, a form of mental processing involving strategically-based decision making. 13
- Children participating in physical activity are better able to stay focused and remain on task in the classroom, thus enhancing the learning experience.
What does this mean for your child?
- Even though school PE classes may provide some positive influence, the degree of benefit appears to be conditional upon the rigour of the activities during class.
- It has been shown that increased aerobic fitness provides a greater improvement in academic performance through brain development in children. Physical fitness may be gained from additional school sporting activities (interschool competitions for example) and sporting activities outside of school.
- Development of motor skills through sports encompassing speed of movement, agility, and coordination may have a greater influence on academic performance, relative to cardiovascular fitness. Muscular strength does not appear to have any correlation to academic performance.
- For those athletes in senior school, a well deserved break from study doing physical activity is not only great for some downtime but will also assist in improving concentration and memory.
- So does physical activity increase academic performance? Yes, but there is still a need to study! Even with improved brain functions such as attention and memory, you still need to use them to learn.
- Singh A et al. Physical Activity and Performance at School: A Systematic Review of the Literature Including a Methodological Quality Assessment. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.2012;166(1):49-55. ↩
- Telford et al 2012, ‘Schools With Fitter Children Achieve Better Literacy and Numeracy Results: Evidence of a School Cultural Effect’, Pediatric Exercise Science, vol. 24, viewed 10 December 2014,
- Chomitz et al (2009), Is There a Relationship Between Physical Fitness and Academic Achievement? Positive Results From Public School Children in the Northeastern United States. Journal of School Health, 79: 30–37. doi: 10.1111/j.1746-1561.2008.00371.x This study was supported in part through the US Department of Education Carol M White Physical Education Program grant Q215F041121 to the Cambridge Public School Department. ↩
- J N Booth et al Published Online First 22 October 2013 Associations between objectively measured physical activity and academic attainment in adolescents from a UK cohort Br J Sports Med 2014;48:265-270 doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-092334 ↩
- Hillman CH et al. (2009) The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience. 2009;159(3):1044. ↩
- Caterino MC, Polak ED. (1989) Effects of two types of activity on the performance of second-, third-, and fourth-grade students on a test of concentration Percept Mot Skills. Aug;89(1):245-8. ↩
- D. N. Ardoy, J. M. et al (2014) A Physical Education trial improves adolescents’ cognitive performance and academic achievement: the EDUFIT study Ortega Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, February, 2014. 10.1111/sms.12093 ↩
- Coe, Dawn P., et al. (2006) “Effect of physical education and activity levels on academic achievement in children.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 38.8 (2006): 1515. ↩
- Irene Esteban-Cornejo, MSc et al (2014) “Independent and combined influence of the components of physical fitness on academic performance in youth,” The Journal of Pediatrics, DOI: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2014.04.044, published by Elsevier. ↩
- Hillman CH et al (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008;9(1):58-65 ↩
- Hillman CH et al (2011) A review of chronic and acute physical activity participation on neuroelectric measures of brain health and cognition during childhood. Prev Med. 2011 Jun;52 Suppl 1:S21-8. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2011.01.024. Epub 2011 Jan 31. ↩
- Davis, C.L. et al. (2007) Effects of aerobic exercise on overweight children’s cognitive functioning: a randomised controlled trial. Res. Q. Exerc. Sport. 78(5):510–519. ↩
- Tomporowski et al (2008) Exercise and Children’s Intelligence, Cognition, and Academic Achievement. Educ. Psychol. Rev. 20(2):111– 131. ↩