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  • Writer's picturedrlynnekenney

Physical Education and Physical Activity Improve Children’s Cognition, Achievement & Health

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

Physical Education (PhysEd) programs in elementary schools play a vital role in promoting learning, academic achievement, social skills, and mental health among students. Here are several ways in which physical education and physical activity positively impact student cognition, learning, behavior, and achievement.

Cognitive Development: Physical Education promotes cognitive development through stimulation of the neural pathways necessary for socialization and learning. Physical activities improve blood flow and oxygenation to the brain, which enhances cognitive functioning, attention, and memory. Further, research shows that the motor skill development associated with consistent participation in physical education/activity can improve academic performance, cognition, visual-perceptual skills, attention, memory, and problem-solving skills (CDC, 2010; de Greeff et al., 2018; Fernandes, et al., 2016; Greco et al, 2023; Shi & Feng, 2022).

Executive Function: Physical Education activities require many skills of students including following instructions, making decisions, problem-solving, and regulating their behavior. Practicing these actions through physical activity helps children to develop executive function skills such as attention control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control.

Improved executive function abilities positively correlate with academic achievement, as they enable students to better focus, plan, and organize their approach to learning tasks.

Recent evidence suggests that adding developmentally-appropriate cognitive demands to patterned movement stimulates executive function and the precursor skills to reading and math (Paschen et al., 2019; Kolovelonis & Goudas, 2023). Advances in neuroscience have resulted in substantial progress in linking physical activity to cognitive performance as well as to brain structure and function (Donnelly et al., 2016).

Physical Fitness and Academic Readiness: Physical fitness is a set of individual attributes related to the ability to perform physical activity and exercise that have been associated with healthy physical and mental conditions throughout the lifespan (Gouveia et al., 2020). Physical fitness is strongly linked to academic readiness and success from preschool to high school (Veraksa et al., 2021; Verburgh et al., 2014). PhysEd programs provide opportunities for students to engage in physical activities that improve their overall fitness levels. Research indicates that higher fitness levels are associated with better academic performance, including higher test scores and improved cognitive abilities.

Improved Classroom Behavior: Regular participation in physical education and classroom physical activity can have positive effects on classroom behavior (Watson et al., 2017). Physical activity helps release energy, reduce restlessness, and improve attention span, leading to better classroom engagement. Active breaks during the school day, such as incorporating movement or short bursts of exercise, can also help students refocus and enhance their concentration (Carlson et al., 2015). Thirty to sixty minutes of daily recess has also been shown to improve behavior in primary school (Massey et al., 2021; Rhea 2010-2021).

Health and Attendance: Physical Education programs encourage physical fitness and healthy habits, which contribute to overall health and well-being. Students who participate in regular physical activity are more likely to have better overall health, lower rates of absenteeism, and improved school attendance (D’Agostino et al., 2018). By promoting a healthy lifestyle, PhysEd supports learning by ensuring students are present and engaged in the school environment.

Social and Emotional Well-Being: PhysEd fosters social interaction, teamwork, and cooperation among students (Engels & Freund, 2020). It provides opportunities for students to develop social skills, build relationships, and enhance their emotional well-being. Positive social interactions and emotional well-being have been linked to improved academic performance and classroom engagement (James et al., 2023).

Stress Reduction: Engaging in physical activity helps reduce stress levels and promote mental well-being. Regular exercise has been shown to decrease anxiety and improve mood, leading to a more positive learning environment. Reduced stress and improved mental health can positively impact students' ability to concentrate, learn, and perform academically.

The specific impact of physical education on academic achievement may vary depending on the quality and implementation of the PhysEd program, as well as individual student characteristics. However, research consistently highlights the positive relationship between physical education, physical activity, and academic performance, emphasizing the importance of incorporating physical education into the elementary school curriculum.


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