Physical Activity and Learning

Not too long ago, Yoni Freedhoff, a doctor and blogger on the ills of sugar (, published a post with a video on the benefits of physical exercise at school, especially right before learning or writing a test. You can see the video for yourself below, but, in short, the Naperville Central, Illinois school had selected a number of students with learning needs and mandated 20 minutes of exercise, first thing in the morning. This was not just stretching or walking – the students were required to get their heart rates up to “the zone”, 145-185 BPM, after which they completed their most difficult classes of the day.

While, admittedly, this school seemed to be very sports-centric, and their access to resources in this area appeared greater than most schools typically have, the school was seeing results. Really good results. Students who were participating in the program saw improved test scores in reading and mathematics when compared against the students who opted not to participate. Naturally, the fact that the students elected to take this program may say something about them as students; it could be that they were already better suited academically than those who didn’t care enough to join. ABC News first reported on this in 2010, so I would be curious to find out how the program is performing today, but the Naperville Central website doesn’t mention it in any way.

One thing that stands out for me is the evolutionary implications of this type of relationship; although I am not a biologist, I always like to think about why the body evolved to perform a particular function in the first place. For early humans, searching for food must have been a very physical task that most likely required a lot of learning. The video cited research that also showed that physical activity directly before writing a test also improved scores, so early man would also have benefited from added brain performance during hunting, and post hunting, when the hunters reflected on what might have made the experience more efficient or successful.

In Alberta, the government initiated the Daily Physical Activity, or DPA, initiative in 2006 to improve “students’ physical activity levels” with the intention that this would improve students’ abilities to learn and to develop “positive habits needed for a healthy, active lifestyle.” The expectation for schools was, and still is, that students will participate in a minimum of 30 minutes of organized physical activity per day. DPA is organized differently in every school; in many it appears as a regular physical education class, and in others it is partly integrated with other coursework (yes, even in math and science classes!).

Still, depending on scheduling, the DPA in Alberta schools may not occur at the beginning of the day like at Naperville, nor will it necessarily be scheduled adjacent to literacy or numeracy classes. Additionally, students’ intensity levels may not reach the required levels to reap the benefits seen at Naperville Central. Depending on the instructor, some less-active students might be allowed to walk while others are running laps; it is difficult to monitor 30-60 students to ensure that they are getting a minimum of 145 BPM during DPA. Finally, it is worth noting that there are conflicting studies on the benefits of athletics programs in schools; some found benefits to high school students’ grades, self-esteem, and college enrolment rates when they participated in athletics programs (Marsh & Kleitman, 2003), and a positive relationship between athletic participation and academic achievement (Videon, 2002). Others found that students in NCAA Division III college athletics had lower average GPAs than non-athletes (Robst & Keil, 2000), and a significant negative relationship between athletic expenditures and student achievement in Texas high schools (Meier, et al., 2004). In each of these studies it is probably unfair to reduce the authors’ conclusions to half a sentence, so the references are at the bottom for you to refer to should you wish to expand your knowledge. Some authors have taken an anti-athletics stance in their analysis of the education system in the United States (Ripley, 2013).

Increased physical activity seems to be something worth exploring at the school level; if students can truly benefit their literacy and numeracy scores by simply becoming more active, then it’s a lot better than some of the educational initiatives that I’ve seen in my short time as a teacher.


Marsh, H. W., & Kleitman, S. (2003). School athletic participation: Mostly gain with little pain. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 25(2), 205.

Meier, K. J., Eller, W. S., Marchbanks III, M. P., Robinson, S., Polinard, J. L., & Wrinkle, R. D. (2004). A lingering question of priorities: Athletic budgets and academic performance revisited. Review of Policy Research, 21(6), 799-807.

Ripley, A. (2013). The smartest kids in the world and how they got that way. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Robst, J., & Keil, J. (2000). The relationship between athletic participation and academic performance: Evidence from NCAA Division III. Applied Economics, 32(5), 547-558.

Videon, T. M. (2002). Who plays and who benefits: Gender, interscholastic athletics, and academic outcomes. Sociological Perspectives, 45(4), 415-444.


Leave a Reply