Research on the relationship between physical activity and children’s health, cognition, learning and academic achievement has increased in the past ten years. Yet, many questions remain unanswered. We need to know more about what kinds of physical activities, in what dose and duration, improve executive function skills in which types of students.  Having done coordinative, rhythmic beat-matching activities with hundreds of elementary-aged students, I am interested in this question: “Do coordinative, rhythmic beat-matching physical activities improve attention, memory, response inhibition and cognitive flexibility in students ages 5-12?”

For a current review of the research see Singh et al (2018). Singh AS, Saliasi E, van den Berg V, et al. Br J Sports Med Epub ahead of print: July 2018. doi:10.1136/ bjsports-2017-098136

Effects of physical activity interventions on cognitive and academic performance in children and adolescents: a novel combination of a systematic review and recommendations from an expert panel.

The studies can be understood in three broad categories:

  1. Benefits of Physical Activity in General – Studies show that physical activity has broad benefits for people of all ages. Generally, physical activity is associated with better health and fitness, cardiovascular, metabolic and cognitive functioning. Of growing interest is to what degree specific types of physical activity can improve executive function skills and academic achievement. 
  2. Benefits of Physical Activity in Academic Achievement  – Studies have shown that acute physical activity improves specific aspects of cognition such as attention and on-task behavior. More research is needed.
  3. Benefits of Specific Types of Cognitive-Motor Activities on Executive Function Skills – Research suggests coordinative motor activity paired with increasingly complex cognitive demands may improve attention, on-task behavior, self-control, and memory. More research is needed.
  • A growing body of research in children and adults indicates that higher levels of fitness are associated with better control of attention, memory, and cognition.

  • Motor movement primes the brain for the development of cognitive skills, encoding of academic content and implementation of self-regulation behaviors.

  • Children prone to inattention, agitation, and over-excitability are best to move before disruptive patterns emerge. Frequent movement allows for regulation of internal energy, alerting the attention system and mood management.

  • Children are best to be moving 30-60 minutes per day in school, we recommend 5 minutes of cognitive-motor activity every 45 minutes.

  • Physically fit children demonstrate greater attentional resources, have faster cognitive processing speed and perform better on standardized academic tests.

  • The newest research in embodied cognition shows that the cognitive and motor systems are integrally related and suggests that if we want our children to learn better, we need to help them move more.

  • When students and teachers collaborate together in patterned movement, learning improves.

Macdonald et. al 2018 review current studies on the relationship between motor proficiency, reading, math, and achievement. Findings support associations between several components of motor proficiency and academic performance in mathematics and reading. There was evidence that fine motor proficiency was significantly and positively associated with academic performance in mathematics and reading, particularly during the early years of school. Significant positive associations were also evident between academic performance and components of gross motor proficiency, specifically speed and agility, upper-limb coordination, and total gross motor scores. Preliminary evidence from a small number of experimental studies suggests motor skill interventions in primary school settings may have a positive impact on academic performance in mathematics and/or reading. Future research should include more robust study designs to explore more extensively the impact of motor skill interventions on academic performance LINK.




Ma et al. (2015) examined the effects of 4 minutes of high-intensity acute physical activity. The study found improved accuracy on the d2 test of attention following the high-intensity activity compared to no activity. Ma JK, Le Mare L, Gurd BJ. (2015). Four minutes of in-class high-intensity interval activity improves selective attention in 9- to 11-year olds. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2015, 40(3): 238-244. See also Ma JK, Le Mare L, Gurd BJ. Classroom-based high-intensity interval activity improves off-task behaviour in primary school students. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014;39(12):1332–1337. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2014-0125. 

30-minute acute bouts of exercise have found improvements in attention (Pellegrini & Davis, 1993; Pellegrini, Huberty, & Jones, 1995), reaction time (Ellemberg & St-Louis-Deschênes, 2010), sustained attention (Palmer, Miller, & Robinson, 2013), time-on-task (Mullender-Wijnsma et al., 2015) and recall (Norris, Shelton, Dunsmuir, Duke-Williams, & Stamatakis, 2015). 

Ten-minute bouts of physical activity have been shown to improve on-task behaviour (Mahar et al., 2006), attention (Budde, Voelcker-Rehage, Pietrabyk-Kendziorra, Ribeiro, & Tidow, 2008) and inhibition (Vazou & Smiley-Oyen, 2014). Vazou S, Smiley-Oyen A. Moving and academic learning are not antagonists: acute effects on executive function and enjoyment. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2014;36(5):474–485.

Executive functions, visual-motor coordination, physical fitness and academic achievement: Longitudinal relations in typically developing children. Oberer et al. 2018. LINK

The aims of the present longitudinal study were to investigate the influence of and the relationships between different domain-general predictors of academic achievement (executive functions, visual-motor coordination, and physical fitness) in 5- to 6-year olds (at the first time point), when entered in a model simultaneously. As expected, by including each construct separately as predictor for later academic achievement, each of the three constructs significantly predicted later academic achievement.


A 2019 RCT in Germany showed 12 weeks of Kindergarten-based yoga improves selected visual attention and visual-motor precision parameters and decreases behavior of inattention and hyperactivity in 5-year-old children. Consequently, yoga represents a sufficient and cost-benefit effective exercise which could enhance cognitive and behavioral factors relevant for learning and academic achievement among young children.

Jarraya, Sana, et al.  (2019). 12 Weeks of Kindergarten-Based Yoga Practice Increases Visual Attention, Visual-Motor Precision and Decreases Behavior of Inattention and Hyperactivity in 5-Year-Old Children. Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 10. LINK

Computer-delivered cognitive engagement activities improve executive functions in the classroom. The degree to which concomitant coordinative physical activities boost cognition is currently under study. Kavanaugh, B.C., Tuncer, O.F. & Wexler, B.E. (2018). Measuring and Improving Executive Functioning in the Classroom, J Cogn Enhancement. LINK

Best JR, Miller PH, Naglieri JA. (2011). Relations between executive function and academic achievement from ages 5 to 17 in a large, representative National Sample. Learn Individ Differ, 21(4):327–336.

Diamond, A. (2015). Effects of Physical Exercise on Executive Functions: Going beyond Simply Moving to Moving with Thought. Annals of Sports Medicine and Research2(1), 1011–.

Donnelly, J.E. and Lambourne, K. (2011). Classroom-based physical activity, cognition, and academic achievement. Preventive Medicine,  52(SUPPL.): p. S36-S42.

Meeusen, R., Schaefer, S., Tomporowski, P. & Bailey, R. (2017). Physical Activity and Educational Achievement: Insights from Exercise Neuroscience (ICSSPE Perspectives). London: Routledge




Physical Activity and Learning After School: The PAL Program

Every school day, more than 10 million children attend after-school programs in the United States. This book provides a research-based blueprint for offering students in grades 1-5 innovative programming that combines intensive physical activity and social–emotional skills development with academic enrichment in reading, mathematics, and social studies. Presented is an integrative approach that has been developed and tested to meet the needs of all students, including those in high-poverty schools. 

Studies on the effects of manipulating recess scheduling on observed classroom behaviour have found that students are more fidgety and less attentive during prolonged periods without recess (Pellegrini & Davis, 1993; Pellegrini et al., 1995).



As reported in Meeusen at al (2017), McNaughten and Gabbard (1993) compared 20, 30 and 40 minutes of paced walking on maths performance using a 90-second timed maths test. Children improved maths performance after 30 and 40 minutes of walking compared to 20 minutes, but these differences occurred only during the afternoon, and no improvements in performance occurred during the morning.

Physical activity may improve attention and inhibition in school children. Budde et al. (2008) found that 10 minutes of coordinative exercise (n = 115, ages 13– 16 years) improved attention on the d2 test of attention. Vazou and Smiley-Oyen (2014) found that 10 minutes of an active lesson improved executive functions (n = 35, ages 9– 11 years) measured via the flanker task, particularly inhibition, as compared to a control condition.

The traditional view that the basal ganglia and cerebellum are simply involved in the control of movement has been challenged in recent years. One of the pivotal reasons for this reappraisal has been new information about basal ganglia and cerebellar connections with the cerebral cortex. In essence, recent anatomical studies have revealed that these connections are organized into discrete circuits or ‘loops’. Rather than serving as a means for widespread cortical areas to gain access to the motor system, these loops reciprocally interconnect a large and diverse set of cerebral cortical areas with the basal ganglia and cerebellum.


Classroom Physical Activity works. The question is what specific type of activity, how often and for whom. More research is ongoing.

Classroom-Based Physical Activity Breaks and Children’s Attention: Cognitive Engagement Works! 

The present study aimed to investigate the separate and/or combined effects of physical exertion (PE) and cognitive engagement (CE) induced by acute physical activity breaks on primary school children’s attention. In sum, the results showed that (1) CE, but not PE, had a facilitating effect on children’s focused attention and processing speed and that (2) changes in positive affect mediated the relationship between ratings of perceived cognitive engagement (RCE) and focused attention and processing speed, respectively. (3) The accuracy score remained unaffected. These results suggest that a short cognitively engaging activity contributes to children’s attention at school. Schmidt M, Benzing V, Kamer M. Classroom-Based Physical Activity Breaks and Children’s Attention: Cognitive Engagement Works! Frontiers in Psychology. 2016;7:1474. LINK

Impact of Coordinated-Bilateral Physical Activities on Attention and Concentration in School-Aged Children

Harris et al. (2018) examined the effects of 4-week, daily 6-minute coordinated-bilateral physical activity (CBPA) breaks in the classroom on attention and concentration in school-aged children. Participants (n=116) in fifth grade from two elementary schools were assigned to three groups: two intervention groups (n= 60) and one control group (n = 56). All three groups were pre- and post-tested with the d2 Test of Attention (d2 test).

The CBPA showed significant improvement in concentration performance (𝐹1 = 24.162, p = .000) and attention span (𝐹1 = 6.891, p = .011), compared to the Fitbit-O. No significant changes in all five attention parameters were found between the Fitbit-O and the control.  It was concluded that daily brief coordinated-bilateral activities can improve attention and concentration in fifth-grade students over the course of four weeks. LINK

Classroom-based physical activity improves children’s math achievement – A randomized controlled trial

Have et al. (2018) studied the effect of physically active math lessons on children’s math achievement N=505 (age 7).

The findings of this large RCT among 7-year-olds suggest that integration of physical activity into math classes over a school year improved academic achievement in math skills. Furthermore, a combination of classroom-based physical activity and more physical education classes was the most beneficial for math skills.

‘Moving classrooms’ may be an effective approach to improve academic results and general health in primary school. We need further research into how type, quality, intensity, and duration of physical activity influence the learning outcome and would need to control for aspects such as teacher motivation and a novelty effect of a new teaching method. A multifactorial randomized design would allow comparison of different intervention types.

Have, M., Nielsen, J. H., Ernst, M. T., Gejl, A. K., Fredens, K., Grøntved, A., & Kristensen, P. L. (2018). Classroom-based physical activity improves children’s math achievement – A randomized controlled trial. PloS one13(12), e0208787. LINK

Effect of classroom-based physical activity interventions on academic and physical activity outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Watson et al. 2017 LINK

Classroom-based physical activity interventions may provide a practical, low-cost, and effective strategy to increase academic-related outcomes, particularly acute positive effects on improving on-task and reducing off-task classroom behaviour and selective attention. Classroom-based physical activity could also have the potential to increase children’s physical activity levels, however further research is needed to confirm this. Findings from this systematic review should be interpreted with caution given the high number of included studies of low methodological quality, suggesting there is room for improvement in classroom-based physical activity intervention study designs and reporting. This review has identified a number of areas for further research in order to increase understanding of the effect of classroom-based physical activity on academic and physical activity outcomes.


Diamond and Ling (2016) provide a good overview of intervention studies in executive function. Diamond, A., & Ling, D. S. (2016). Conclusions about Interventions, Programs, and Approaches for Improving Executive Functions that appear Justified and those that, despite much hype, do not. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience18, 34–48. LINK


Howie E.K., Schatz, J, Pate, R.R. (2015). Acute effects of classroom exercise breaks on executive function and math performance: a dose-response study. Res Q Exerc Sport, 86(3):217–224.

Rasberry, C.N., S.M. Lee, L. Robin, B.A. Laris, L.A. Russell, K.K. Coyle, and A.J. Nihiser. (2011). The association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance: A systematic review of the literature. Preventive Medicine, 52(SUPPL.): p. S10-S20.

Singh, A., Uijtdewilligen, L., Twisk, JWR., Van Mechelen, W., Chinapaw, MJM. (2012). Physical activity and performance at school: a systematic review of the literature including a methodological quality assessment. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 166(1):49–55.