Physical activity is children’s natural way of being. Physical activity is also significant in terms of children’s brain functions and learning. Researcher Heidi Syväoja, PhD, explains what we currently know about the significance of physical activity for learning, based on research.

How does learning benefit from physical activity and activity-based teaching methods? What is the significance of physical activity for cognitive functions, learning outcomes and learning?

Physical activity – an untapped resource in learning?

Recent research has especially focused on learning among school-age children. Studies suggest that physical activity, especially during the school day, appears to have beneficial effects on children’s academic achievement.

Domestic research results show that the amount of regular – especially vigorous – physical activity is associated with better academic achievement (Syväoja et al. 2013, Kantomaa et al. 2013). In my doctoral thesis, those fifth- and sixth-graders who engaged in physical activity at least an hour a day for five or six days a week achieved the highest grade point averages, whereas those who only did physical activity once per week or not at all received the lowest grade point averages (Syväoja et al. 2013).

At the beginning of schooling (children aged 6–8), in turn, associations were found between a large amount of break-time physical activity and good reading fluency as well as between participation in sports club training sessions and arithmetic skills (Haapala et al. 2014).

The domestic research results are also supported by international findings. In a study conducted in the United States, the lessons of second- and third-graders were supplemented with ten-minute breaks of physical activity in alignment with learning objectives, totalling 90 minutes per week. Over a period of three years, subject-specific test results in reading, mathematics and spelling improved significantly among children participating in exercise when compared with the control group. (Donnelly et al. 2009.)

In a Dutch study, pupils who participated in physically active mathematics and mother tongue lessons achieved better test results in spelling and arithmetic skills than those who had studied using traditional methods. The researchers estimated that the pupils participating in activity-based teaching were four months ahead in learning outcomes. (Mullender-Wijnsma et al. 2016.)

Physical activity sharpens thinking

Current research supports the notion that physical activity is beneficial for children’s cognitive functions and, consequently, possibly for their learning as well: Physical activity boosts attentiveness and executive functions, which in turn promote learning.

Physical activity has been found to promote cognitive functions.

• ‘Cognitive functions’ refers to human activity related to receiving, storing, processing and using information, such as attention, memory, thinking and executive functions.
• ‘Executive functions’, in turn, refers to those cognitive functions that coordinate and control information processing. In other words, executive functions control other cognitive functions, such as memory and attention.

It has been found that physical activity and good physical fitness are beneficial for attention and executive functions. In my doctoral research, physically highly active fifth- and sixth-graders performed better in an attention task when compared with their inactive peers (Syväoja et al. 2014).

A US study found that physically fit children were able to concentrate on observing the traffic while crossing a street even when distracted by listening to music or speaking on the phone. Conversely, conversing on the phone distracted their less fit peers from crossing safely. (See figure.) (Chaddock et al. 2012.)

It would seem that physical activity sessions promote children’s attentiveness and executive functions. In the Dutch study, two 30-minute physical activity sessions were added to the school week of primary school pupils, during which they played tag or various ball games, for example. After six months, it was found that pupils participating in physical activity improved their results in tasks requiring executive functions when compared with those who did not participate in physical activity sessions (van der Niet 2015). A study conducted in the United States, in turn, discovered that a ten-minute activity-based mathematics exercise promoted pupils’ executive functions more than an exercise performed sitting down (Vazou & Smiley-Oyen et al. 2014). Convincing results were also achieved by another US research team in its study, where children participated in a physical activity programme for two hours after every school day over a period of nine months. The programme focused on endurance exercise, but it also included muscular strength sessions twice a week. According to the results, the performance of children aged 8–9 in the physical activity group improved to the level of young adults in tasks that require executive functions, unlike in the control group. (Chaddock-Heyman et al. 2013.)

Why does physical activity promote learning?

The impact that physical activity has on learning may be the sum of many factors. Its effects on the structure and functions of the brain, motor development, interaction, self-esteem and school satisfaction may be among the possible factors explaining the link between physical activity and learning.

It has been noted that physical activity has the same effect on the health and functional capacity of the brain as on the rest of the body. Physical activity improves the brain’s blood circulation and oxygen intake and increases neurotransmitter levels. Regular physical activity has been found to increase the number of cerebral capillaries and the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports the functioning of neurons (Davenport et al. 2010, Vaynman et al. 2004).

Some links between physical activity and cognitive functions are based on the development of brain structures. A study conducted in the United States found that the volume of the hippocampus was higher among physically fit children when compared with their less fit peers. This is significant, because the hippocampus is the seat of memory and learning. (Chaddock et al. 2010.) The same researcher group demonstrated that the volume of the dorsal striatal structures of the basal ganglia was higher among physically fit children when compared with their less fit peers. The dorsal striatum of the basal ganglia forms an important area of the brain in terms of executive functions. These findings would suggest that regular physical activity has increased the volume of children’s brain regions relating to memory and executive functions. (Chaddock et al. 2010.)

Furthermore, physical activity has been found to increase connections between brain cells and structures, the density of existing neural networks and the electrical activity of the brain. A US study divided pupils aged between eight and ten into two groups depending on how well they performed a task requiring executive functions. The performance of these two groups was then compared after a period of rest and after a 20-minute walk. The study found that especially lower performers performed better in the test after physical activity than after rest, while their brain activity levels increased. (See figure.) (Drollette et al. 2014.)


The positive effects of physical activity on learning may also flow from motor development and learning of motor skills, because motor and cognitive skills develop in parallel, controlled by the same mechanisms of the central nervous system (Hillman et al. 2008). Diverse physical activity supports neuro-motor development and learning of motor skills (Stodden et al. 2008) and, consequently, it may also enhance cognitive functions. A Finnish study explored the link between motor skills and learning outcomes among children aged between six and eight. It found that performance in reading fluency, reading comprehension and arithmetic skills tests was poorest among children with weaker motor skills (see Figure 2) (Haapala et al. 2014).

Significance of physical activity for social interaction

Learning is a social process: we learn from each other and in groups. Physical activity offers social situations and opportunities for interaction, which support the creation of peer relations. Such peer relations promote pupils’ coping, school attachment (Furrer & Skinner 2003, Kiuru et al. 2008, Osterman 2000) and academic achievement (Buhs & Ladd 2001). Furthermore, physical activity has been found to raise self-esteem, increase contentment in school (Kristjansson et al. 2009, Kristjansson et al. 2010), increase classroom participation and foster peaceful learning environments (Barros et al. 2009, Madsen et al. 2011). These are other potential explanations of why physical activity is useful for academic achievement and learning.

Summary – active body, active mind

In the light of current research, it is fair to say that physical activity stimulates the brain, promotes children’s cognitive functions and has a positive effect on academic achievement (Donnelly et al. 2016). This was also the conclusion recently drawn by an international group of world-class experts while issuing a statement on the importance of physical activity. In their statement, the experts highlighted the effects – both immediate and long-term – of physical activity on learning: physical activity before, during and after the school day improves brain functions and academic achievement (Bangsbo et al. 2016). Indeed, the conclusion is ‘active body, active mind’.

The article is based on a piece posted on the Lihastohtori (‘Muscle Doctor’) blog on 17 August 2016, entitled ‘Active body, active mind – on the significance of physical activity for learning’ (in Finnish).

Heidi Syväoja, MSc (Sport and Health Sciences), PhD, graduated with an MSc in Sports Physiology in 2011 and earned her doctorate from the University of Jyväskylä Department of Psychology in 2014 with a thesis on ‘Physical activity and sedentary behaviour in association with academic performance and cognitive functions in school-age children’. She currently works as a researcher at the LIKES Research Centre for Physical Activity and Health.

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