Brain Boost

How sport and physical activity enhance children’s learning what the research is telling us.

Prepared by: Centre for Sport and Recreation ResearchCurtin University, March 2015

This document is an updated version of:

Martin KE, 2010 Brain Boost Sport and Physical Activity Enhance Children’s Learning, The University of Western Australia, Department of Sport and Recreation 

Update prepared by:

Smith  J, Centre for Sport and Recreation Research, Curtin University, March 2015

How sport and physical activity helps your kids learn better

Activities such as running, swimming, kicking a footy or playing netball can all help your kids do better at school.

We know this because a lot of researchers in Australia and around the world have been investigating the links between sport, physical activity and academic achievement. Here at the Department of Sport and Recreation, we’ve done our homework checked it twice and know their findings add up: being active in the playground and on the playing field helps kids perform better in the classroom.

The majority of research points to more physically active children being smarter, because exercise has biological, psychological and social benefits.

The evidence indicates that regular physical activity is likely to provide children with the optimum physiological condition for maximising learning.

Dr Karen Martin, Research Fellow, School of Population Health, UWA

In my experience as an educator, there is no question that kids who are physically active are more open to learning.

Stephen Breen, President, Western Australian Primary Principals’ Association

Some of the main research findings are:

  • There’s a positive link between physical activity and academic achievement.
  • Active boys and girls are more likely to pass exams.
  • Physical activity leads to improvements in maths and reading. 
  • Physical activity is likely to provide children with the optimum physiological condition for maximising learning.

On top of that, the research also finds that:

  • Physical activity improves memory, behaviour, concentration and reasoning ability.
  • Children reckon exercise is fun and they welcome the chance to do it at school.
  • Kids who exercise improve their motor skills and their on-task behaviour in lessons.
  • Particularly with girls, the more vigorous the physical activity the more success they will achieve academically.
  • Inactivity is bad for children.

How does exercise or being active do this?

  • Exercise increases blood flow to the cortex of the brain which is associated with memory and problem solving.
  • It can stimulate nerve growth and development in the brain.
  • It can increase the brain’s resistance to injury.

Physical activity enhances cognitive function improving memory, behaviour, concentration and academic achievement.

Illustration of a head in profile with coloured cogs inside

In other words, if you help your children get regular exercise, their brains will be fitter and will work better at school. And when our kids are fitter and do better at school, our whole community wins.

Cyclist and brain lifting weights

Physical activity and academic success: It's a win-win

Physical activity and academic success: It's a win-win

Research tells us that there’s a positive link between children being active and playing sport and their ability to get better marks at school.

Sport and physical activity participation are generally promoted for their positive impacts on children’s physical and mental health.

However, the overall picture is better than that. Researchers believe that, with children, increased participation in sport and other forms of physical activity also enhances cognitive functioning (information processing), memory, concentration, behaviour and academic achievement.

In other words, research is telling us that there’s a positive link between children being active and playing sport and their ability to get better marks at school.

But the opposite can also be true. Inactivity in children can negatively impact brain health and aspects of cognition known as executive control (also called cognitive control in adults).

These negative impacts can involve inhibition (the ability to resist distractions and maintain focus), working memory (mentally holding and manipulating information) and cognitive flexibility (multi-tasking) – which are considered vital to success at school, at work and in life (Hillman et al., 2014).

For reasons such as these, the link between physical activity and academic achievement in children is of increasing interest in the fields of education and sport.

This publication is an update on research on the relationship between physical activity, sport, learning and academic success, Brain boost: Sport and physical activity enhance children’s learning (Martin, 2010).

It details findings from Australian and international research published in peer-reviewed journals and it provides summaries of intervention and longitudinal research, correlational studies, and research reviews.

The research might be newer but the message is the same: the links between physical activity and learning in children are positive and can be long-lasting. 

Unfortunately, with increasing pressure on schools to ensure children achieve academic success, physical activity classes (such as physical education and sport) are increasingly being pushed down the curriculum priority list.

Research tells us that there’s a positive link between children being active and playing sport and their ability to get better marks at school.

Declining

A concern pointed out by several researchers is that the time spent on physical activity in schools has been steadily declining (Donnelly & Lambourne, 2011; Hardman K & Marshall J, 2000; Lowry, Wechsler, Kann, & Collins, 2009; Salmon J, Timperio A, Cleland V, & Venn A, 2005). 

In some schools, the average amount of time spent on moderate to vigorous physical activity in class has been reported as being less than 10 minutes a day. 

Another concern is that research indicates that removing or reducing physical activity classes at school may be detrimental to children’s physical and mental health (Ahn & Fedewa, 2011). That’s because physical activity at school is associated with the total daily physical activity of children (Dale D, Corbin CB, & Dale S, 2000; Myers, Strikmiller, Webber, & Berenson, 1996; Sallis JF et al., 2003). 

While some people believe more sport will leave less time for children to achieve better marks, this is not the case. 

The vast majority of research indicates that replacing academic learning sessions with physical activity does not have a detrimental impact on school grades. Indeed, some intervention research indicates that increased participation in physical activity leads to enhanced learning and better grades (de Greeff et al., 2014; Hollar et al.; Shephard RJ, Lavallee H, Volle M, La Barre R, & C, 1994). 

Evidence also suggests that achieving a threshold amount of physical activity may be necessary to acquire learning benefits (Davis et al., 2007; Ericsson & Karlsson, 2014).

As well as that, there’s also evidence that participation in vigorous physical activity may further enhance learning (Coe, Pivarnik, Womack, Reeves, & Malina, 2006; de Greeff et al., 2014; Hillman et al., 2014; Howie & Pate, 2012). 

Organised

Children have been found to be receptive to additional daily physical activity, especially when it offers high time-on-task, is fun, and reflects their interests (Macdonald, Abbott, lisahunter, Hay, & McCuaig, 2014). However, there is evidence that there has been a reduction over the years in children’s participation in physical activity and organised community sport (Dollman, Norton, & Norton, 2005; Donnelly & Lambourne, 2011).

Evidence also suggests that achieving a threshold amount of physical activity may be necessary to acquire learning benefits.
What does this evidence tell us?

What does this evidence tell us?

What is the relationship between physical activity, fitness and academic achievement?

The large majority of university-based, internationally published research in this field has found a positive association between children’s physical activity participation and academic achievement. 

For instance, intervention and longitudinal studies have concluded that:

  • Short bouts of exercise benefit executive control/function (Chen, Yan, Yin, Pan, & Chang, 2014; Niemann et al., 2013; Tine & Butler, 2012).
  • Greater vigorous physical activity out of school results in higher test scores (Coe et al., 2006; Niemann et al., 2013).
  • The average academic achievement of children who received extra physical education is significantly higher than children who were in a control group which did not receive extra physical education (Ardoy et al., 2014; Shephard RJ et al., 1994).
  • Reading comprehension improves (Hillman et al., 2009; Stevens, To, Stevenson, & Lochbaum, 2008).
  • Physical activity intervention leads to significant improvements in children’s maths scores (Gao, Hannan, Xiang, Stodden, & Valdez, 2013; Hollar et al.; Riley, Lubans, Morgan, & Young, 2014; Stevens et al., 2008) and motor skills (Ericsson & Karlsson, 2014).
  • Cognitive benefits are maintained over time (Koivusilta, Nupponen, & Rimpela, 2012; Stevens et al., 2008; Wittberg, Northrup, & Cottrell, 2012).
The large majority of internationally published research has found a positive association between children’s physical activity participation and academic achievement.

Studies exploring the relationship between physical activity or fitness and academic achievement among children and adolescents have been carried out around the world, and are summarised in the intervention and longitudinal research, cross-sectional research and research reviews.

Research shows children can spend less time on academic learning, and more time being physically active during the school day, without affecting their academic success or progress.

On top of that, correlation studies (which explore the relationship between sport, physical activity or fitness and academic achievement retrospectively) have found:

  • A linear relationship between academic performance and physical activity with sport/physical activity a significant positive predictor of academic achievement with higher physical fitness, physical capacity and physical activity being associated with higher school ratings of scholastic ability (Dexter T, 1999; Dwyer T, Sallis JF, Blizzard L, Lazarus R, & Dean K, 2001; Kwak et al., 2009; Sigfusdottir, Kristjansson, & Allegrante, 2006).
  • Students who reported a greater level of exercise spent more time in sport and achieved higher grade point averages (Dexter T, 1999; Field T, Diego M, & Sanders CE, 2001; Fox, Barr-Anderson, Neumark-Sztainer, & Wall, 2010; Lidner KJ, 1999; Morales et al., 2011).
  • Greater physical activity level was associated with positive achievement orientation (Ardoy et al., 2014; Sallis, Prochaska, & Taylor, 2000).
  • Boys who were in the Healthy Fitness Zone (HFZ) for aerobic fitness or muscular endurance were found to be 2.5 to 3 times more likely to pass maths/reading exams. Girls who were in the Healthy Fitness Zone (HFZ) for aerobic fitness were 2 to 4 times as likely to meet or exceed reading and maths standards (Bass et al., 2013).

Superior learning

In addition to these findings, research shows children can spend less time in academic learning, and more time being physically active during the school day, without it affecting their academic success or progress. (Ahamed et al., 2007; Coe et al., 2006; Dollman J, Boshoff K, & Dodd G, 2006; Donnelly & Lambourne, 2011; Dwyer T, Coonan WE, Worsley LA, & Leitch DR, 1979; Sallis JF et al., 1999; Shephard, 1997.

Superior learning therefore occurs with greater physical activity participation (Gao et al., 2013; Shephard, 1996), supporting the theory that increasing physical activity has a positive impact on learning (Dwyer T, Blizzard L, & Dean K, 1996; Lambourne et al., 2013). 

However, some studies have failed to find a relationship between physical activity and learning (Fisher, Juszczak, & Friedman, 1996; LeBlanc et al., 2012; Tomporowski PD, 1986), and other studies identified the relationship for girls only (Carlson et al., 2008; Shachaf, Katz, & Shoval, 2013).

There tends to be an overwhelming amount of literature indicating physical activity is related to academic performance (Jonker, Elferink-Gemser, Toering, Lyons, & Visscher, 2010; Jonker, Elferink-Gemser, & Visscher, 2009; Kristjánsson, Sigfúsdóttir, Allegrante, & Helgason, 2009; Kwak et al., 2009; Lambourne et al., 2013). 

Findings that consider the intensity of exercise have shown that undertaking physical activity at vigorous to moderate intensity is related to better cognitive performance (Morales et al., 2011). 

 

School success

With evidence that children who are involved in more organised, community sports or recreation are likely to perform better academically, the benefits from implementing strategies to increase children’s involvement in community sports seem to extend to school success.

A limitation of cross-sectional studies is that they do not explain the direction of observed relationships; in this instance, children who perform well academically may be more likely to be involved in sport and greater physical activity.

However, results from intervention studies (Ardoy et al., 2014; Chen et al., 2014; Hillman et al., 2014; Macdonald et al., 2014; Niemann et al., 2013; Sallis JF et al., 1999; Shachaf et al., 2013; Shephard RJ et al., 1994; Tine & Butler, 2012) provide some evidence that gains in academic achievement are achieved following greater physical activity participation, suggesting that physical activity is impacting on learning.

Superior learning therefore occurs with greater physical activity participation, supporting the theory that increasing physical activity has a positive impact on learning.

How can physical activity and sport improve learning?

Learning can be examined in different ways and is often measured via cognitive and academic testing. A multitude of learning outcomes have been compared with physical activity or assessed following physical activity interventions. 

This varied approach in measuring learning outcomes has led to difficulty in determining the strength of the relationship between physical activity and cognitive functioning and academic success, and in undertaking meta-analysis of data (Martin, 2010; Sibley & Etnier, 2003). 

However, the strategy of measuring multiple responses has aided with identifying potential pathways between physical activity, cognitive functioning and academic success, and these have been collated to develop the Move to Learn Model (Figure 1) (Martin, 2010).  

This model, developed for this review, highlights the many pathways where sport and physical activity have the potential to affect learning, test scores and academic success. 

Move to learn

Figure 1: Move to Learn, theoretical pathways linking physical activity, cognitive functioning and academic success (Martin, 2010)
A diagram linking sport and other physical activity with cognitive functioning and behaviour  resulting in academic success.

In summary, the evidence indicates that physical activity enhances children’s cognitive functioning, concentration and on-task behaviour.

Intervention research relating to the effects of physical activity on cognitive processing indicates that:

  • Physical activity improves children’s cognitive control, concentration, attention and reasoning ability (Ardoy et al., 2014; Budde, Voelcker-Rehage, Pietraßyk-Kendziorra, Ribeiro, & Tidow, 2008; Hillman et al., 2014; Hillman et al., 2009; Taras H, 2005).
  • On-task behaviour can be improved with short bouts of exercise (Macdonald et al., 2014; Mahar, 2006). 

As well as that, correlation studies and reviews of research have concluded:

  • There is a significant positive relationship between children’s physical activity and cognitive functioning (Davis et al., 2007; Kwak et al., 2009; Sibley & Etnier, 2003).
  • Physical activity benefits children’s achievement and cognitive outcomes (Fedewa & Ahn, 2011; Tomporowski P.D., 2003).

Evidence of the physiological affects of physical activity on the brain assist in explaining this relationship. Exercise can increase levels of a brain growth factor (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), stimulate nerve growth and development in the brain and increase the brain’s resistance to injury, reduce plasma noradrenaline (a vasoconstrictor), increase blood flow to the cortex of the brain (L. Chaddock et al., 2010; Laura Chaddock et al., 2010; Cotman CW & Berchtold NC, 2000; Herholz B et al., 1987; Jennings G et al., 1986). 

This evidence indicates that regular physical activity is likely to provide children with the optimum physiological condition for maximising learning (Martin, 2010).

Higher participation in physical activity is the key

Higher participation in physical activity is the key

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012) indicates that of 2.8 million children aged from five to 14 years old, 1.7 million (60%) participated in at least one organised sport outside of school hours.

Evidence indicates that despite national initiatives to increase children’s physical activity, children are still not doing enough to meet the recommended levels. 

But is this enough? Given that the health benefits of regular physical activity are widely known, evidence indicates that despite national initiatives to increase children’s physical activity, children are still not doing enough to meet the recommended levels (Daly & Joyce, 2010; Guthold, Cowan, Autenrieth, Kann, & Riley, 2010).

Efforts need to be made worldwide to increase levels of physical activity among schoolchildren.

One study looked at the patterns of physical activity and sedentary behaviour among 13-to-15-year-old school children from 34 mainly developing countries (Guthold et al. 2010). It found that the majority of students did not meet physical activity recommendations. In addition, their levels of sedentariness—that is, the time spent sitting down—were high.

These findings suggest efforts need to be made worldwide to increase levels of physical activity among schoolchildren. Participation in physical activity is therefore not rising (Martin K et al., 2009). 

Although, a growing body of evidence indicates that schools can be encouraged to maximise the time children spend in physical activity and sport and be reassured that replacing academic time with physical activity and sport will not have a detrimental effect on their academic success. Indeed, it may actually support and optimise learning. 

Other strategies to promote children’s physical activity opportunities, such as providing environments that focus on physical activity and reducing obesity rates, are warranted.

The benefits of greater physical activity participation include assisting with maximising children’s learning, as well as improving their physical, social and mental health – benefits that are likely to extend into adolescence and adult life.