Brain boost: Sport and physical activity enhance children’s learning

Dr Karen Martin, School of Population Health, The University of Western Australia May 2010.

This publication has been updated with Brain boost: How sport and physical activity enhance children’s learning what the research is telling us (Martin, 2015).

Sport and physical activity participation are generally promoted for their positive impact on children’s physical and mental health.1 However, increased participation in sport and other forms of physical activity are also thought to lead to enhancement of cognitive functioning (information processing), memory, concentration, behaviour and academic achievement for children. The link between physical activity and academic achievement is of increasing interest in the field of education and sport.

Unfortunately, with increasing pressure on schools to ensure children achieve academic success, and the new practise of publicised average grade comparison between schools, physical activity classes (such as physical education and sport) are increasingly being pushed down the curriculum priority list. Of concern, it appears that time spent in physical activity during the school day is diminishing;2-4 at some schools the average moderate to vigorous physical activity during the class has been reported as being less than 10 minutes daily. Removing or reducing physical activity classes from the school day may be detrimental to children’s physical and mental health as research indicates that school day physical activity is associated with total daily physical activity.5-7

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.8, 9 Evidence also suggests that achieving a threshold amount of physical activity may be necessary to acquire learning benefits,10 and that participation in vigorous physical activity may further enhance learning.11 Further to this, there is evidence that there has been a reduction over the years in children’s participation in physical activity and organised community sport, and this is particularly evident in Australia.12

Previously, we reported the research evidence related to the relationship between physical activity or sport and learning or academic success.13 This report provides an update of evidence reported from Australian and international research published in peer-reviewed journals; providing summaries of intervention research, correlational studies and research reviews.


  1. Strong WB, Malina RM, Blimkie CJR, et al. Evidence based physical activity for school-age youth. Journal of Pediatrics. 2005;146(6):732-737.
  2. Salmon J, Timperio A, Cleland V, Venn A. Trends in children’s physical activity and weight status in high and low socio-economic status areas of Melbourne, Victoria, 1985-2001. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health. 2005;29(4):337-342.
  3. Hardman K, Marshall J. The state and status of physical education in schools in international context. European Physical Education Reviews. 2000;6(3):203-229.
  4. Lowry R, Wechsler H, Kann L, Collins J. Recent trends in participation in physical education among US high school students. Journal of School Health. 2009;71(4):145-152.
  5. Myers LL, Strikmiller PPK, Webber LLS, Berenson GGS. Physical and sedentary activity in school children grades 5-8: The Bogalusa Heart Study. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996;28(7):852-859.
  6. Dale D, Corbin CB, Dale S. Restricting opportunities to be active during school time: Do children compensate by increasing physical activity levels after school? Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 2000;71(3):240-248.
  7. Sallis JF, McKenzie TL, Conway TL, et al. Environmental interventions for eating and physical activity:  a randomized controlled trial in middle schools. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2003/4 2003;24(3):209-217.
  8. Hollar D, Messiah SE, Lopez-Mitnik G, Hollar TL, Almon M, Agatston AS. Effect of a two-year obesity prevention intervention on percentile changes in body mass index and academic performance in low-income elementary school children. American Journal of Public Health. 2010;100(4):646.
  9. Shephard RJ, Lavallee H, Volle M, La Barre R, C B. Academic skills and required physical education: The Trois Rivieres Experience. Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation Research Supplements. 1994;1(1):1-12.
  10. Davis CL, Tomporowski PD, Boyle CA, et al. Effects of aerobic exercise on overweight children’s cognitive functioning: A randomized controlled trial. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 2007;78(5):510.
  11. Coe DP, Pivarnik JM, Womack CJ, Reeves MJ, Malina RM. Effect of physical education and activity levels on academic achievement in children. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2006;38(8):1515.
  12. Dollman J, Norton K, Norton L. Evidence for secular trends in children’s physical activity behaviour. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2005;39(12):892.
  13. Martin K. Improved learning through physical activity. 2006; available online: Department of Education and Training (Government of Western Australia).

Active kids are smarter

Research proves that if your kid is physically active they do better at school.

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

On the other hand inactivity negatively impacts brain health and executive control including: 

  • maintaining focus
  • working memory
  • multi-tasking.
An infographic showing how active kids are smarter with information written on the page.

Did you know?

  • Most research shows replacing academic lessons with physical activity does not have a detrimental impact on school grades – in fact some research shows increased participation in physical activity leads to better grades.
  • Most university-based, internationally-published research in this field has found a positive link between children’s physical activity participation and academic achievement.
  • Short amounts of exercise benefits executive functions.
  • More intense physical activity out of school resulted in higher test scores and improved reading comprehension.
  • Physical activity intervention led to significant improvements in children’s maths scores.
  • Students who exercised more, participated in sport and achieved higher grade point averages.

Why is this?

  • Exercise can increase levels  of a brain growth factor.
  • Exercise can stimulate nerve growth.
  • Regular physical activity may reduce plasma noradrenaline (a vasoconstrictor which reduces blood flow to the brain).
  • Exercise increases blood flow to the cortex of the brain.
  • Physical activity improves children’s concentration, attention and reasoning ability.
  • Physical activity leads to improvement in cognitive control.

In other words – if you exercise, your brain is fitter and works better. It’s pretty simple!

Who says this?

  • Journal of Paediatrics
  • Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health
  • Journal of School Health
  • Journal of Paediatric Psychology
  • Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport
  • American Journal of Preventive Medicine
  • American Journal of Public Health
  • Canadian Association for Health
  • Physical Education and Recreation Research Supplement
  • Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports
  • British Journal of Sports Medicine
  • Journal of Sports Behaviour
  • European Journal of Preventative Medicine
  • European Journal of Public Health
  • Journal of Adolescent Health
  • Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Paediatrics
  • American Journal of Health Behaviour
  • International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity
  • Journal of Neurology.