Physical Fitness May Help to Improve Success at School

6 Minute Read

An HFE tutor with a group of smiling fitness students
An HFE tutor with a group of smiling fitness students

Children who are physically fit will likely perform better at school, as they can retain information better than those who are out of shape. This is according to a new study, raising important questions regarding the physical education programs at schools.

A study by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) found that students who took part in vigorous exercises for at least 10 minutes before a math test, scored higher than children who sat down quietly before the exam.

This confirms what parents and exercise specialists have known for years – that physical exercise helps children to pay more attention at school and at home, and that this will have a direct influence on their academic performance too.

“Britain is suffering a crisis of inactivity that is driving up obesity levels and damaging children’s performance at school,” says Baroness Campbell, chairman of the Youth Sport Trust and former head of UK Sport. As a result, the Government is investing £150 million during the next two years to help raise the standards of physical education in schools. These funds should be used by schools to run sports competitions, improving facilities and allowing students to get involved in sport and have qualified instructors.

Physical Fitness is Beneficial

Students who are physically fit are also less likely to skip classes, or partake in risky behaviours and are generally associated with better performance throughout their school years. According to the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), one fifth of primary schools did not ensure that all pupils could swim before they left school and that only a minority of schools play competitive sport to a high level. Here are a few other interesting facts to consider:

  • In England both adults and children spent more minutes being moderately to vigorously active on weekdays than on weekend days.
  • Children in the U.S. spend an average of seven and a half hours a day in front of a television or a computer.
  • Only one in three children in the U.S. is physically active every day.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently went out to study whether physical fitness can affect how children learn. They recruited a group students between nine and 10 years old, testing their aerobic fitness with the help of a treadmill. They were then asked 24 of the most physically fit students, along with 24 of the least fit students, to work on difficult memory challenges.

The result? The children who were physically fit significantly outperformed the students who were not. This suggests that a higher level of fitness has a great impact on challenging situations, like learning. The more difficult something seems to be, the more physical fitness may aid students in learning it.

Schools Focus on Test Scores

Schools and universities generally focus their attention to test scores, making students believe that every available second should be put into academics. This leads to more and more students neglecting physical activates and sport, in favour of their academics.
The focus on test scores is also leading to less funding for physical education in schools. “Given the increasing body of knowledge on the subject, schools may want to place more emphasis on physical education and physical activity programs not only to improve students’ health but to raise their academic achievement as well,” says Ronald W. Bass, lead researcher at the American College of Sports Medicine.

While grades should definitely be a priority, there should be a healthy balance between academics and physical activities in order to help students perform better at school and reduce the risk of other negative influences like drop outs and absenteeism.
Physical exercise also helps students to reduce stress naturally, which can also benefit their ability to effectively handle their academic workload. But what can schools do to add more activity to a student’s school day?

Firstly, educators must abandon the idea of physical education taking a backseat.
“A growing body of evidence shows that increased time for physical education and other school-based physical activity programs is associated with either a neutral or positive impact on academic outcomes,” says Professor Charles E. Basch of Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. But it goes further than simply being able to learn better in school; physical exercise has a positive effect on the brain too.

Here’s a summary of how exercise may affect brain function:

•    It provides increased oxygen to the brain;
•    Physical fitness can improve cognitive health and academic performance;
•    It increases the brain’s neurotransmitters;
•    Increased neurotrophins assure the survival of neurons that are in turn responsible for memory, learning and higher thinking.

Apart from at home, schools are the ideal venue to encourage physical fitness and health-promotional behaviours in children. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) recommends one hour of physical activity per day for children. In addition to this, schools should provide at least three to four hours of instructional physical education for high school students throughout the year.

Physical Fitness Crucial to a Complete Education

During early school years, physical education focuses on the development of manipulative, locomotor and non-locomotor skills through a variety of games, dances and gymnastics. It also forms the foundation for developing a child’s motor skills and overall awareness. As students grow older, they will take part in traditional sports, as well as adventure activities like kayaking and rock climbing. Other activities might also include leisure activities like biking and dancing.

Fitness development should become more systematic during these years and students will develop specific fitness components and fitness levels. Physical fitness will also boost self-esteem and help to develop confidence and competence when performing various motor skills. These are just some of the additional benefits of physical education among students.

Physical fitness improves fitness levels in students and reduces the risk of obesity. The government review of research shows that students who take breaks from their normal class work to take part in physical exercises during the school day are better able to concentrate on their school work and may perform better in tests too.

There’s a myriad of research that proves how adequate amounts of physical exercise can help students get through their school days; not only does this prevent obesity but it will also improve their academic performance.


1.    PLOS ONE, The Influence of Childhood Aerobic Fitness on Learning and Memory
2.    ABC News, Physical Activity May Help Kids’ Grades, Too
3.    University of Michigan, Physical Education in America’s Public Schools


Lee Cain

Lee Cain

Writer, Tutor and Experienced Fitness Professional

Lee has over 20 years’ experience in the health and fitness industry and has performed multiple roles, including physical training instructor, strength and conditioning coach, lecturer, writer, tutor, assessor and verifier for vocational qualifications. He has a passion for all things exercise, with his key specialisms being strength and performance-based training.

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