Physical Activity and Learning

PE Cutbacks

PE Cutbacks

Cutbacks in mandatory physical education at school has contributed to an overall decline in children's physical activity levels. When these programs are available, they often involve little actual physical activity and do not focus on the fun aspects of physical activity. (US Dept HHS 1996)

State-mandated academic achievement testing has had the unintended consequence of reducing the available time for children to be physically active during the school day. Some children are withheld from physical education classes or recess to participate in remedial or enriched learning experiences intended to increase academic performance. However, little evidence supports the notion that more time allocated to subject matter will translate into better test scores. Furthermore, time planned for student participation in physical education, art, and music did not negatively influence academic performance. The strategy of reducing time spent in physical education to increase academic performance may not have the desired effect. (Kohl & Cook 2013)

Recess Trends

Surveys and studies indicate multiple trend toward recess (AAP 2013):

  • Reducing recess to accommodate additional time for academic subjects.
  • Withdrawal of recess for punitive or behavioral reasons.
  • Decreased recess time as student ages
  • Less abundant recess among children in urban settings and of lower socioeconomic status.

American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement stating that recess should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons since it is a crucial and necessary component of a child's development. Just as physical education and physical fitness have well recognized benefits, recess offers its own unique benefits and is complementary to physical fitness - not a substitute for it. Recess offers both cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits. For example, periodic recesses have been shown to make children more attentive and more productive in the classroom. It also offers a necessary break from the academic challenges and rigors of concentration. (AAP 2013)

Physical Activity and Learning

Most of the studies of physical activity during the school day demonstrate a positive relationship to academic performance. Physical activity used a break from academic learning time results in better attention and better academic performance. (Kohl & Cook 2013). Including physical activity in school classes resulted in 6% increase in student’s standardized test scores when compared to classes who had inactive lessons (Donnelly 2011). Physical activity can also improve class behaviors and time on task (Kohl & Cook 2013), as well as concentration (Taras 2005).

Physical Activity and LearningRecess has shown to improve classroom behavior and 'on task' behaviors. (Kohl & Cook 2013). Students who participated in an in-class physical activity program improved their on-task behaviors by 20 percent (Mahar, 2006).

Aerobic exercise appears to have the greatest effect on children’s achievement and cognitive outcomes (Fedewa & Ahn, 2011). More vigorous physical activity results in greater improvement in academic performance (Carlson 2008, Castelli 2011).

Participation in physical activity was related to beneficial to certain types of cognitive performance including: perceptual skills, IQ, achievement, verbal tests, mathematics tests, memory, developmental level/academic readiness. However other types of cognitive performance have not shown to benefit from exercise, including working memory and multitasking. (Kohl & Cook 2013)

Physical Fitness and Learning

Physical fitness (as performed and measured in fitness tests) also appears to contribute to enhanced academic performance and cognitive outcomes during development. Studies that examine a dose response association suggest that the more components of fitness criteria achieved (cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, strength, etc), the greater likelihood of successful academic performance (Kohl & Cook 2013). For example, Chomitz (2008) found that the likelihood of passing both mathematics and English achievement tests increased with the number of fitness tests passed during physical education class. In addition, the odds of passing the mathematics achievement tests were inversely related to higher body weight (Chomitz 2008).

Other studies found that only aerobic capacity, as measured by the Fitnessgram, was related to test performance in mathematics and reading on the Illinois Standardized Achievement Test. The strongest relationships were found between aerobic fitness and achievement in mathematics, followed by IQ and reading performance. (Kohl & Cook 2013)


American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on School Health (2013). The Crucial Role of Recess in School. Pediatrics. 131(1): 183 -188.

Carlson SA, Fulton JE, Lee SM, et al. (2008). Physical education and academic achievement in elementary school: Data from early childhood longitudinal study. Am J Public Health. 98(4):721-727. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2007.117176.

Castelli DM, Hillman CH, Hirsch J, Hirsch A, Drollette E. (2011). FIT Kids: time in target heart zone and cognitive performance. Prev Med. 52(Suppl 1):S55-S59.

Chomitz VR, Slining MM, McGowan RJ, Mitchell SE, Dawson GF, Hacker KA (2008). Is there a relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement? Positive results from public school children in the northeastern United States. Journal of School Health;79(1):30–37.

Donnelly JE, Lambourne K. (2011). Classroom-based physical activity, cognition, and academic achievement. Prev Med. 52 (Suppl 1):S36-S42.

Fedewa AL & Ahn S. (2011). The effects of physical activity and physical fitness on children’s achievement and cognitive outcomes: a meta-analysis. Res Q Exerc Sport. 82(3):521-535.

Kohl HW III, Cook HD; National Academy of Sciences (2013). Physical Activity, Fitness, and Physical Education: Effects on Academic Performance. Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US).

Mahar, M., Murphy, S., Rowe, D., et al. (2006). Effects of a classroom-based program on physical activity and on-task behavior. Medical Science of Sports and Exercise, 38(12), 2086-2094.

Taras, H. (2005). Physical activity and student performance at school. Journal of School Health, 75(6), 214-218.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1996), Physical Activity and Health: A Reports of the Surgeon General, U.S. Dept. of HHS, Atlanta, GA.

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