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The Impact of Physical Activity on Student Achievement

The California Department of Education reported a positive general relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement. Additionally, the Institute of Medicine stated that “children who are more active show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed, and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active.” The reason is simply science. As we exercise (especially cardiovascular exercise), we experience increased blood flow to the brain. This blood flow supplies oxygen to areas of the brain that would otherwise be lacking if movement had not taken place. Students that are physically fit are more able to allocate brain resources to problem-solving and learning. These students also tend to rely less on environmental cues and teacher prompting. Fortunately, students don’t have to be the picture of perfect health to benefit from increased blood flow to the brain. It is reported that the brain benefits from even a few minutes of vigorous movement. A single bout of moderate to intense exercise can have an immediate impact on a student’s ability to pay attention and hold information in their working memory. Following exercise, students can increase their academic learning time and have less off-task behaviors. Additionally, students have been shown to have a higher rate of accuracy on cognitive tasks following exercise than when they have been sedentary.

Post-pandemic standardized test scores have school districts everywhere panicking. They are tasked with the difficult job of figuring out how to make up for the missed learning opportunities resulting from COVID-19. Teachers report that students are ending this school year with fewer mastered skills than in pre-pandemic years. As a possible solution to the problem, many school administrators are adjusting student schedules to allow for more minutes dedicated to Math and Reading. While this allows for more time in core subject areas, these minutes aren’t just added to the day, they are taken from other areas. In many cases, administrators are trading opportunities for movement, such as recess, for Math and Reading instruction. To some, this might seem an obvious solution, but researchers are encouraging districts to think twice.

More minutes of instruction does not necessarily result in more achievement. In fact, some will say increased “seat time” will actually have a negative impact on student performance. During the pandemic, many children were more sedentary than ever before, which may have contributed to increased levels of mood swings, depression, and a decrease in overall general health. To combat this, many are saying the answer lies in more minutes of active movement rather than more minutes sitting in a chair listening to their teacher.

It is clear the impact of exercise on learning can be immediate. Even better news is there are long-term academic benefits to physical exercise in schools. One study followed a group of students who participated in a minimum of 75 minutes of academically based physical activities per week for a 3-year period. These students had increased achievement by 5% more than the control group.

Taking minutes away from recess or physical education to allow for more academic time might not be the solution we are looking for. The positive impact of movement on executive functioning, problem-solving, focus, accuracy, and behavior should be reason enough to protect the opportunity for students to get exercise in schools. If that isn’t enough, there is one more very powerful reason to allow for movement in schools; research supports the idea that physical activity causes an overall increase in student enjoyment. Following bouts of exercise, students enjoy the learning environment AND the subject area more. If brain science isn’t convincing enough, perhaps the smiles on student faces, in and out of the classroom, will convince us to resist the temptation to make students sit in their chairs even more than before and to allow them to get their heart rate up and learn.


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Beneficial bursts of movement typically last around 10 minutes and involve cardiovascular exercise. Running in place, dancing, doing squats, and even brisk walks around the school can help learners. Adding music to these movement breaks increases the benefits even more. Listening to music causes endorphins to be released, which reduces fatigue and can increase student creativity. Even more positive impact is seen when subject area information is added to the exercise. For example, doing a dance to upbeat music while reciting math facts, can have more benefits than random dancing void of subject area content.

Benefits are also seen when physical activity occurs outside of the classroom. Periods of unstructured recess and physical education classes have proven to benefit student learning. Recess has been shown to even have a positive impact on student behavior, especially when provided before or after a traditional academic lesson. Longer periods of exercise, such as 30-minute physical education classes, have been shown to improve overall cognitive performance when compared to 30 minutes of watching television. In addition to recess and P.E some schools have responded to this data by adding before-school activity clubs. Interestingly enough, these clubs saw the highest academic gain when students participated in small groups of same-age peers.