Physical Activity, Fitness, and Physical Education: Effects on Academic Performance

Physical Fitness and Physical Activity: Relation to Academic Performance

State-mandated academic achievement testing has had the unintended consequence of reducing opportunities for children to be physically active during the school day and beyond. In addition to a general shifting of time in school away from physical education to allow for more time on academic subjects, some children are withheld from physical education classes or recess to participate in remedial or enriched learning experiences designed to increase academic performance.

Yet little evidence supports the notion that more time allocated to the subject matter will translate into better test scores. Indeed, 11 of 14 correlational studies of physical activity during the school day demonstrate a positive relationship to academic performance. Overall, a rapidly growing body of work suggests that time spent engaged in physical activity is related to a healthier body and a healthier mind.

Physical Fitness as a Learning Outcome of Physical Education and Its Relation to Academic Performance

Achieving and maintaining a healthy level of aerobic fitness, as defined using criterion-referenced standards from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, is the desired learning outcome of physical education programming. Regular physical activity participation is also a national learning standard for physical education, a measure intended to facilitate the establishment of habitual and meaningful engagement in physical activity. Yet, although physical fitness and participation in physical activity are established as learning outcomes in all 50 states, there is little evidence to suggest that children achieve and maintain these standards.

Physical Activity, Physical Education, and Academic Performance

In contrast with the correlational data presented above for physical fitness, more information is needed on the direct effects of physical activity programming and physical education classes on academic performance. In a meta-analysis, Sibley and Etnier found a positive relationship between physical activity and cognition in school-age youth, suggesting that physical activity, as well as physical fitness, may be related to cognitive outcomes during development. Furthermore, physical activity was related to cognitive performance in eight measurement categories, indicating a beneficial relationship of physical activity to all mental effects except memory.

Since that meta-analysis, however, several papers have reported robust relationships between aerobic fitness and different aspects of memory in children. Regardless, the comprehensive review of Sibley and Etnier (2003) was critical because it helped bring attention to an emerging literature suggesting that physical activity may benefit cognitive development even as it also demonstrated the need for further study to understand better the multifaceted relationship between physical activity and mental and brain health.

Single Bouts of Physical Activity

Beyond formal physical education, evidence suggests that multi-component approaches are a viable means of providing physical activity opportunities for children across the school curriculum. Although health-related fitness lessons taught by certified physical education teachers result in more significant student fitness gains relative to such classes taught by other teachers, non-physical education teachers can provide opportunities to be physically active within the classroom. Single sessions or bouts of physical activity have independent merit, offering immediate benefits to enhance the learning experience. Studies have found that single episodes of physical activity result in improved attention, better working memory, increased academic learning time, and reduced off-task behaviors.

Academic Learning Time and On- and Off-Task Behaviors

Excessive time on task, inattention to duty, off-task behavior, and delinquency are essential considerations in the learning environmentgiven the importance of academic learning time to academic performance. These behaviors are observable and of concern to teachers, as they detract from the learning environment. Systematic observation by trained observers may yield important insight regarding the effects of short physical activity breaks on these behaviors. Indeed, systematic observations of student behavior have been used as an alternative means of measuring academic performance.


Consistent engagement in recess can help students refine social skills, learn social mediation skills surrounding the fair play, obtain additional minutes of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity that contribute toward the recommended 60 minutes or more per day and have an opportunity to express their imagination through free play. In addition, when children participate in recess before lunch, additional benefits accrue, such as less food waste, increased incidence of appropriate behavior in the cafeteria during lunch, and greater student readiness to learn upon returning to the classroom.

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