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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
ACUTE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
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 Research, 2(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