Physical Activity And Academic Performance

A glowing brain.

Exercise and academics are often seen as two completely separate things in education. But the relationship between physical activity and academic performance could not be more intertwined. Therefore, schools must embrace the connection between physical activity and academic performance for students to reach their highest potential.


Does Physical Activity Influence Academic Performance?


Yes! In 2010, the CDC released an 84-page report titled “The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance.” 

As a result of this report, the CDC arrived at several policy implications summarized below:


  • There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic performance, including grades and standardized test scores.

  • Physical activity can have an impact on cognitive skills and attitudes and academic behavior, all of which are important components of improved academic performance. These include enhanced concentration and attention as well as improved classroom behavor.

  • Increasing or maintaining time dedicated to physical education may help, and does not appear to adversely impact, academic performance.

While the CDC’s findings helped to illuminate the connection between physical activity and academic performance, there still seems to be a disconnect. We are not taking advantage of the power of physical activity. 

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Children and adolescents ages 6 through 17 should do 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. (Physical Activity Guidelines) And yet, less than one-quarter (24%) of children 6 to 17 years of age participate in 60 minutes of physical activity every day. 


Let those numbers sink in. Even though it is widely accepted that 60 minutes a day of physical activity helps elementary school students all the way through high school students, both physically and mentally, only one-quarter of this group is actually getting the recommended amount of physical activity. 


A student is stressed out with work and computer next to her.
Students feel overwhelmed. Physical activity can help.

Exercise and Academics – Why Aren’t Kids More Physically Active?


It might be tempting to look at children’s lack of physical fitness and point the finger at ‘lazy kids.’ Kids sit in front of computer screens all day; of course, they don’t prioritize physical fitness.


But let’s remember we are talking about KIDS. Whether they are 6 or 17, they are still just kids. And as much as we like to pretend children have control over their day, most of it is mapped out by everyone other than themselves. And at schools, physical activity is getting the cut.


At the elementary school level, recess used to be upwards of 30 min – 60 minutes a day. Now many schools have reduced recess, and daily physical activity breaks to less than 20 minutes a day.

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In many states, physical education classes are required only for one semester or moved to an optional elective at the high school level. Unfortunately, this means high school students might completely lose any structured time for physical fitness.


So why is this happening? Unfortunately, we have started to look at exercise and academics as competing forces. The more time students spend physically active, the less time they have to focus on math, science, and other ‘core subjects.’ As districts push for improved academic achievement and better standardized test scores, they seek to add more minutes to academic subjects during the school day, which in turn means less physical activity.

Why Is Physical Education Important?


Physical education is important because it is the best opportunity for students to participate in regular vigorous physical activity. Yes, students outside of the school day might play, exercise, or participate in sports, but that still is not enough.


For students to have a chance of reaching the daily recommendations of physical activity, they need physical education class. And past just reaching the daily recommendation of physical activity, students develop positive relationships with physical fitness in PE class. Physical education classes create opportunities for the student to learn and feel the positive effects of exercise. The benefits of physical activity in schools are endless. 

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By getting the recommended physical activity time throughout the week in PE class, students will reap the positive effects of physical activity and academic achievement.


Don’t believe it? Just ask Dr. John Ratey. 


A School Case Study – Spark & Naperville


When Dr. John Ratey published his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, it set the course for linking physical education with academic performance.


The book followed Naperville West High School in Illinois and its pursuit of having students participate in regular aerobic exercise. Using the powerful case study at the high school in Illinois, Ratey made the case that “even moderate exercise will supercharge mental circuits to beat stress, sharpen thinking, enhance memory, and much more.” The book quickly became the gold standard for physical education teachers and the must-cite source for why PE mattered in schools.

Spark by John J Ratey MD.
Spark by Dr John Ratey revolutionized how we think about physical activity and academic performance.

Key Takeaways On Physical Activity and Academic Performance


Physical education doesn’t just address physical health but helps with better brain function, brain health, and overall cognition. Increased physical activity will support improved academic performance, not hurt it.


Taking a holistic approach to education can better support our students’ total development. If we truly are in pursuit of academic achievement, physical activity interventions need to be part of the comprehensive plan.




What other resources or articles do you have that argue for more physical education in schools?



Does PLT4M provide lessons and materials for physical education?


Yes, PLT4M is the leader in PE lesson plans for high school and middle school students. Over 1,500 schools use PLT4M in their physical education classes.

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