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Academics & Physical Activity

The data are clear – healthy students are better learners.  Over the years, a number of scientists have shown a correlation between high standardized test scores and physical fitness scores (CA Dept. of Education study), and that more time spent in physical education class did not result in a decrease in academic performance (SPARK study in Research Quarterly – Click Here).

Additional studies around the world have supported these conclusions, while there is virtually no data to justify a common myth:  PE should be reduced or eliminated so children have more time to focus on other subjects.

It is important to understand that physical activity positively affects the following:

  • Overweight and obesity
  • HDL cholesterol
  • Blood pressure
  • Insulin resistance
  • Skeletal health
  • Musculoskeletal injuries
  • Psychological well-being
  • Self-esteem
  • Anxiety and depression

An impressive list of outcomes everyone can support.  Yet, can we draw the same conclusions from physical education classes?  No.

Unfortunately, physical activity and physical education do not always go hand in hand.  Studies of physical education have shown not all PE classes are offered in sufficient dosage (frequency and duration) and/or instructed with adequate quality (in this context – 50% or better moderate to vigorous physical activity) to produce the desired health benefits in students.  If physical education is not active, it cannot claim the health benefits.

SPARK strongly supports academic learning AND healthy students through quality, daily physical education for grades PreK-12.  And, SPARK realizes that in many schools, physical education and physical activity time are inadequate – totaling far below the recommended 60 minutes a day.  Therefore, this section attempts to provide resources to support physical educators integrating academic learning and/or reinforcement into their PE classes, and generalists (e.g., classroom teachers) incorporating physical activity into their classrooms.

In addition to the content below, if you are a member of the SPARKfamily, visit the G.Y.M. (Great Young Minds) section for sample lessons and videos that link physical education to the core content standards.


The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance”

Report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“There is a growing body of research focused on the association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance among school-aged youth. To better understand these connections, this review includes studies from a range of physical activity contexts, including school-based physical education, recess, classroom-based physical activity (outside of physical education and recess), and extracurricular physical activity…”

Click Here to view

Physical Education, Physical Activity and Academic Performance”

Brief by Active Living Research

This brief from Active Living Research summarizes the best available evidence about the relationship between physical activity and academic performance among children and teens.

Click Here to view

“Physical Education and Academics- A Match Made in Heaven?”

Webcast by The SPARK Programs

Some schools have reduced physical education (PE) and/or physical activity (PA) minutes (e.g., recess) to devote more time to academics. How does this strategy affect academic performance?  Have there been any scientific studies that support the role of PE and PA? What do the data show?

Click Here to view

“Healthier Students Are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap”

Report by Charles E. Basch, Teachers College, Columbia University

Although Dr. Basch acknowledges that the connection between health and learning is not new, he focuses this paper on seven educationally relevant health disparities that disproportionately affect urban minority youth from low-income families. He discusses how these health disparities impede motivation and ability learn through five interrelated causal pathways.

Click Here to view

“Why We Should Not Cut P.E.”

Educational Leadership Article from Jan 2010 issue of Health and Learning

“Eliminate physical education to increase time for reading and math, the theory goes, and achievement will rise. But the evidence says otherwise…”

Click Here to view

First-Of-Its-Kind Gallup Poll Links Recess To Academic Achievement”

Survey by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Principals say recess has a positive impact on learning; students are more focused, listen better after recess…

Click Here to view

“Relation of Academic Performance to Physical Activity and Fitness in Children”

Article from Pediatric Exercise Science, 2001

The objective of this study was to examine the association of scholastic performance with physical activity and fitness of children.

Click Here to view

“Higher Levels of Fitness Associated with Better Academic Performance among New York City Public School Students”

Report from the NYC Health Department and the NYC Department of Education

“To better understand the prevalence of childhood obesity and how physical fitness may be associated with academic performance in New York City, the DOHMH and DOE reviewed academic and fitness records of public school students in grades K-8 who participated in the NYC FITNESSGRAM program during the 2007–08 school year. The results of this study will be used to inform strategies to continue raising student achievement levels.”

Click Here to view

“Physical Activity May Strengthen Children’s Ability To Pay Attention”

Article in ScienceDaily (2009) citing new University of Illinois study

“The research, led by Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology and community health and the director of the Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory at Illinois, suggests that physical activity may increase students’ cognitive control – or ability to pay attention – and also result in better performance on academic achievement tests.”

Click Here to view

“The Critical Connection Between Student Health and Academic Achievement”

Brief by WestEd and the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, University of California, San Francisco

“Student health is a strong predictor of academic performance…”

Click Here to view

“New Study finds link between physical health and academic test scores”

Article in BusinessWeek citing new West Virginia University study

“Fit bodies may bring kids better test scores in school, a new study finds. ‘Children’s physical fitness is associated with their academic performance,’ said study author Lesley Cottrell, an associate professor of pediatrics at West Virginia University, in Morgantown.”

Click Here to view

Study: Physically Fit Students Outscore Obese Students Academically

In a recent study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, researchers at Michigan State University reported that the fittest middle school students in grades 6-8 received better grades and higher scores on standardized tests than their less fit counterparts. The study examined fitness and academic results of more than 300 students at a West Michigan school; the data indicated that cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular strength and endurance were the health-related fitness components most strongly associated with academic achievement. Study coauthor Dr. James Pivarnik contended that the study results “argue against cutting physical activity from the school day.”

Exercise and Academic Performance

As schools everywhere strive to improve the academic performance of their students, many have cut physical education and recess periods to leave more time for sedentary classroom instruction. A sensible new report from the Institute of Medicine titled “Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School” shows how shortsighted this trend can be. It found that exercise can significantly improve children’s cognitive abilities and their academic performance, as well as their health.

Click here to view the report.

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