The academic success of America’s youth is strongly linked with their health. Health-related factors such as hunger, physical and emotional abuse, and chronic illness can lead to poor school performance. Health-risk behaviors such as early sexual initiation, violence, and physical inactivity are consistently linked to poor grades and test scores and lower educational attainment. When children and adolescents participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day, there are multiple health benefits.
Regular physical activity builds healthy bones and muscles, improves muscular strength and endurance, reduces the risk for developing chronic disease risk factors, improves self-esteem, and reduces stress and anxiety. Beyond these known health effects, physical activity may also have beneficial influences on academic performance.
Children and adolescents engage in different types of physical activity, depending on age and access to programs and equipment in their schools and communities. Elementary school-aged children typically engage in free play, running and chasing games, jumping rope, and age-appropriate sports—activities that are aligned with the development of fundamental motor skills. The development of complex motor skills enables adolescents to engage in active recreation, resistance exercises with weights or weight machines, individual sports, and team sports.
Most youth, however, do not engage in the recommended level of physical activity. For example, only 17.1% of U.S. high school students meet current recommendations for physical activity (CDC, unpublished data, 2009). Schools, which serve nearly 56 million youth in the United States, provide a unique venue for youth to meet the physical activity recommendations. At the same time, schools face increasing challenges in allocating time for physical education and physical activity during the school day.
Many schools are attempting to increase instructional time for mathematics, English, and science in an effort to improve standards-based test scores.
As a result, physical education classes, recess, and other physical activity breaks are being decreased or eliminated during the school day. This is evidenced by data from both students and schools. For example, in 2007 only 53.6% of U.S. high school students reported that they attended physical education class on 1 or more days in an average week at school, and fewer (30%) reported participating in physical education classes daily.
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. This article suggests that physical activity may have an impact on academic performance through a variety of direct and indirect physiological, cognitive, emotional, and learning mechanisms. Research on brain development indicates that cognitive development occurs in tandem with motor ability.
This review examined the findings of 43 articles (reflective of 50 studies total) that explored the relationship between physical activity and/or physical education and academic performance. Each study was categorized in one of four physical activity context areas: 1) school-based physical education; 2) recess; 3) classroom-based physical activity (outside of physical education and recess); and 4) extracurricular physical activity.
Results: A total of 251 associations between physical activity and academic performance were measured. The most commonly measured indicator of academic performance was cognitive skills and attitudes (112 of the 251 associations tested). More than half (50.5%) of all associations tested were positive. Positive associations were found across measures of academic achievement, academic behavior, and cognitive skills and attitudes. There were only four negative associations, accounting for 1.5% of all associations tested.
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