Want to improve academic performance? Look to PE.

There is much debate among teachers and academic researchers about factors which influence cognitive functioning and academic attainment. Nature or nurture, traditional or progressive methods (whatever they mean), growth mindset, direct instruction – everyone has a view. If possible, there is even more debate about the quality of evidence supporting each claim.

In this context, it is perhaps surprising that one area that recent research shows has a positive impact on cognitive performance, and even exam results, is often ignored: physical exercise. A review article on the exercise effects on the brain and cognition published in 2008 in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, concluded that research across cognitive neuroscience and medical disciplines indicated that physical exercise can lead to increased physical and mental health throughout life (Holman, Erickson and Kramer, 2008). A review of 79 studies in this area by Chang et al (2012) concluded that exercise has specific positive effects on cognitive performance both during the exercise period and afterwards, even after a delay.

Cognitive effects in school age children

The majority is studies featured in these reviews featured older adults rather than children, with many focusing on mitigation of the effects of ageing in a medical context. In considering the educational effects of physical activity on school age children, numerous studies, including a paper by Dave Ellemberg & Mathilde St-Louis-Deschênes (2010) published in Psychology of Exercise and Sport, show significant positive outcomes. This study of 7 year old and 10 year old boys, compared the effect of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on reaction time and choice tests with 30 minutes of watching TV. The results showed a significant positive effect of both measures, but especially the choice tests – the measure most resembling a school task.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has not summarised research on physical activity in its Teaching and Learning Toolkit, but does include physical development approaches in their Early Years Toolkit, with the focus primarily on growth and physical development. The EEF concludes that there is, as yet, little high quality research into the educational effects physical activity, but notes that the costs are low and that there is some evidence that young children learn better after physical activity. They recommend that early years settings consider if active play and physical exercise are integrated into each day.

How much physical activity is needed to have an effect?

Research shows that to have a positive effect on cognitive performance (as well as a range of health benefits), periods of exercise do not need to be long but they need to be repeated regularly, and an at least moderate level of aerobic activity needs to be achieved. In a review of over 850 studies, Strong et al (2005) recommended 60 minutes a day of varied, age-appropriate aerobic exercise was effective, and in their review Keays & Allison (1995) found that a similar period 3-5 times a week was effective for Canadian school children. In a large-scale study of Californian elementary school students, Carlson et al (2015) found that just 30 minutes a day had a positive impact on learning through increased attention and reduced off-task behaviour. They proposed that this could be achieved through a mix of classroom exercise breaks and extending opportunities for physical activity during existing school recess. The research team made several recommendations for implementing a programme in schools (see the reading list below).

Does this improve attainment?

The short answer is yes. An influential study by Trudeau and Shepard (2008) argued that sacrificing PE time from the timetable would not improve academic performance whereas increasing time devoted to PE would produce numerous health and behavioural benefits whilst not hindering academic outcomes. In a study as part of the large-scale Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, Booth et al found that regular physical exercise in 11-16 year olds in fact produced significant increases in attainment in English, Maths and Science, and especially for girls in Science. This study indicates that devoting a little more time each day for exercise, even if this is rescheduled from other subjects, would have a measurable positive impact on grades in academic subjects.

What can schools do?

Despite the finding of such studies, PE remains a subject that is sometimes reduced in the face of other curriculum demands. There is considerable evidence to support the introduction of daily physical exercise into the school day. This could be as little as 30 minutes per day. It could be achieved through a mixture of existing break time activity and additional scheduled time, but the evidence points to the greatest impact when children are led by a trained adult. Given the benefits that regular physical activity can provide across all subjects, there are several points school leaders should consider if they want to implement this:

  • Duration of physical activity – at least 30 minutes a day, each day
  • Type of activity – at least moderate aerobic activity, age-appropriate and varied from session to session
  • Implementation – can be achieved through a mixture of existing PE lessons, physical activity breaks within the existing curriculum, and opportunities for activity at break and lunchtime
  • Staffing – Staff members leading physical activity do not need to be specialists (unless a particular activity demands it), but they do need to be trained. Your PE specialists can play a valuable role

I don’t believe that for most schools, increasing physical activity in school would not require wholesale readjustment of the curriculum or the school day. Relatively minor adjustments, but involving all teachers, have the potential to achieve real measurable benefits.

Update, March 2018

I wrote this piece in January 2018. In February the Youth Sport Trust published a report on PE Provision in Secondary Schools. Worryingly, this report revealed a continuing decline in the time allocated to physical education in UK secondary schools. I have written about the implications of this decline here.

Useful Reading

This isn’t intended as a comprehensive bibliography, but as a useful resource for those who want to read further. I have only include publications that are available without a licence or payment. Some are under Creative Commons licences. If you know of interesting studies I have missed, please let me know.

Associations between objectively measured physical activity and academic attainment in adolescents from a UK cohort. Booth, J.N. et al (2003) British Journal of Sports Medicine 48:3.

Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Charles H. Hillman, Kirk I. Erickson, and Arthur F. Kramer (2008) Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9:58-65.

EEF Early Years Toolkit – summarises research into the impact of early years approaches, including physical activity.

Implementing 10-minute classroom physical activity breaks in California elementary schools. Jessica Engelberg et al. Presentation based on the California elementary school study.

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