Improve Student Academic Performance With Physical Education (PE)

One of the most alarming concerns arising from the increased use of screen technology by children is the condition of their physical health and fitness. Because of the availability and allure of video games and smartphone communication, children are spending less time than ever running, jumping and playing outside. According to the Virginia Education Association, “We are raising the most sedentary and unhealthy generation in American history: Its members may have the dubious distinction of being the first generation not to outlive their parents.”

The U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported “a positive relationship between increased physical fitness levels and academic achievement, as well as fitness levels and measures of cognitive skills and attitudes” in a 2010 publication titled “The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance.”

PE Improves Academic Outcomes

In an effort to increase instructional time for core subjects like science, reading and math, school districts are reducing the amount of time they allocate to physical education classes as well as free play or recess. This philosophy, however, seems to be counter to what scientists are discovering about the effect of physical activity on the brain.

According to several studies included in the CDC’s 2010 report, physical activity increases the growth of nerve cells in the hippocampus, which is the center of learning and memory. Studies have also shown that “improved motor skill levels are positively related to improvements in academic achievement and measures of cognitive skills and attitudes.”

PE Boosts Physical Health

The results of a 2016 survey reported by the Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health indicated that over 30 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 17 are overweight or obese, and the numbers are rising. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to counteract this trend, children and adolescents should have at least an hour of physical activity a day.

The effects of obesity on children can have a lasting effect on their future. The CDC has identified immediate and long-term health risks for children who are above the normal or healthy weight for their age and height, including:

  • High blood pressure and cholesterol, both risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
  • Breathing problems, including sleep apnea and asthma.
  • Joint, muscle and bone discomfort.
  • Heartburn or acid reflux.

PE Fosters Emotional Health

A lack of activity also impacts children’s emotional health. Regular exercise and physical fitness cause the brain to release endorphins which affect our mood and energy levels. These endorphins are powerful antidotes for depression or anxiety. They can help children make and keep friends, and help them maintain a positive body image.

Counteracting depression and anxiety – When children are anxious, they tend, just like adults, to focus on what is troubling them, which leads to heightened anxiety, creating a cyclical pattern. When they begin any kind of physical activity, their focus shifts to the demands of the activity itself. There is also the added benefit of acquiring new skills and experiencing a sense of accomplishment.

Improving relationships – When children engage in physical activities with their peers, whether in teams or individual sports or games, the focus is not on the individual but on the activity itself. This offers children opportunities to find common interests and goals, creating bonds that can be developed gradually into friendships.

Improve body image issues – Children who are obese or out of shape often have a negative perception of their own body, which leads to further isolation and resistance to movement. If physical activity and physical education are integral elements of their educational experience, children have an opportunity to turn the tide of ill health, obesity and negative body image. When the youngest students see the joy of movement and free play, there is a better chance that they will continue to move and play throughout their school years and avoid an overly sedentary life.

Added Benefits for Children With Attention or Hyperactive Disorders

In 2011, the CDC’s National Survey of Children’s Health reported in a state-by-state study that between 3 and 9 percent of all children aged 4 through 17 were taking medication for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The same study found that, of the children with an ADHD diagnosis, between 65 and 76 percent of them were being medicated for the disorder.

Although the conversation continues about the best response to children with ADHD and similar issues in the classroom, some school districts are taking a different approach. In 2017, Eagle Mountain Elementary School (Texas) kindergarten and first-grade students began receiving four 15-minute blocks of “unstructured outdoor play” in addition to their 20-minute lunch break recess.

The school, as well as others in Texas, Oklahoma and California are participating in a three-year pilot program called LiiNK. The current initiatives of this project, modeled after the highly-successful Finnish approach to education, are:

  1. Increase the amount of physical activity/recess in the schools.
  2. Add character development as a content area.

The teachers at Eagle Mountain report that their students are “incredibly attentive.” When asked to describe the effect of increased recess on student behavior, their response is, “It’s totally transformed them. The kids are less fidgety, less distracted, more engaged in learning and make more eye contact.” According to the LiiNK website, the benefits of increased recess are:

  • Increased attentional focus.
  • Improved academics.
  • Improved attendance.
  • Decreased behavioral diagnoses (anxiety, ADHD, anger).
  • Improved creativity and social skill development.

The increasing demands of academic performance at every grade level continue to create tension and debate about the amount of time students spend on music, art and physical education. As grade-level expectations go up, time for “free play” goes down, even at the youngest grades.

Research now shows, however, that less activity is counterproductive to student achievement and emotional welfare. As educators and communities become more aware of these facts, they are demanding that physical education and physical activity be increased on a daily basis for students of every age.

Learn more about the MC online M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction program.


Virginia Education Association: The Importance of Physical Education

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance

CDC: Childhood Obesity Causes & Consequences

Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health: Overweight/Obesity, age 10-17 years

AboutKidsHealth: Physical Activity: Benefits of Exercise for Health and Wellbeing

CalmClinic: Obsessive Thoughts: A Common Anxiety Symptom

CDC: State-Based Prevalence Data of Parent-Reported ADHD Medication Treatment

LiiNK Project

HuffPost: The Simple Way a Growing Number of States Are Hoping to Improve Kids’ Brains

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