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Movement and Learning: What's the Connection?

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 10:56am
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7 months ago
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Movement and Physical Education Benefits Academic Success

Recent developments in brain research have provided physical educators and play advocates with an avenue that connects physical activity with academic success. Play advocates have known for years that movement enhances learning, but never had the research to back it up. There is now a connection that provides us with substantial research that demonstrates that cognitive benefits can result from quality physical activity and play opportunities. 

President Bush labeled the ’90s as the decade of the brain.  This was because we learned more about the brain during these 10 years, than we had learned previously in the last 100 years. There was an explosion of research about how the brain learns that greatly impacted teaching in our schools. Researchers found that without the foundation that movement provides, learning is hampered and/or altered for many children.  Scientists found that children use certain parts of the brain when they learn, but also discovered that they use the same parts of the brain when they move.  The process involves connecting a child wearing a computer skullcap to an elaborate brain-mapping program.  Children are asked to read, write or solve a math problem and the researchers map the areas of the brain that light up. The children are then asked to jump up and down, throw a ball, or other active movements and again the mapping of the brain occurs.  After completing this testing on numerous children, a composite mapping of the brain can be completed.  What they have concluded is that the same areas of the brain that light up when a child is pursuing academics are the same areas that light up when a child is moving. This connection supports what we have known for years as physical activity advocates.  Movement enhances the development of the neural connections in the brain, which enhances the child’s ability to learn.  The decade of the brain has enabled us to demonstrate through research that cognitive connections and academic success can be improved through movement and play activity.

Schools need to literally do some ‘sit-ups’ and take notice of this research.  Jerry Gabriel, a professor that has researched how the brain learns, was cited in the Brain Connection.com (2001) stating a “growing body of research suggests that physical activity is integral to keeping cognitive processes working on all valves”.  Dr. Hesslow (1994), a Swedish neuroscientist states, “All things being equal, a physically active student has an advantage in learning; an inactive student is at a disadvantage for learning”.  Research even suggests that physical/play activity can impact student performance enough to elevate test scores (Kwak, Kremers, Bergman, Ruiz, Rizzo & Sjöström, 2009;Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010; Coe, Peterson, Blair, Schutten & Peddie, 2013). 

Can play activities actually change the brains of our students?  The answer is yes, through everyday experiences in our class. The brain is not set to function at birth, as environment plays a big role in what the brain will become. So as educators, we are sculpting the brain everyday through experiences in our classes.

The brain responds much like muscles in that they grow with use and wither with inactivity. Physical and play activity operates much like ‘miracle grow’ for the brain (Ratey, 2008). Exercise itself doesn't make us smarter. Instead, exercise makes us more able to learn and focus and optimizes the brain for learning. Dr. Ratey has documented the connection between exercise and the brain’s performance that shows even moderate exercise will supercharge mental circuits and sharpen thinking skills.

The brain requires much more oxygen than any other organ of the body. The brain makes up only 1/15 of the body’s weight, but it utilizes 1/5 of the body’s oxygen (Blaydes, 2000).  Oxygen is essential for learning and movement enables oxygen to be carried to the brain for efficient functioning and learning. The problem with our current classroom set-up is that our kids do too much sitting during the day.  Research says that 80% of blood pools in hips after just 20-30 minutes of sitting (Blaydes, 2000). If the blood is in the hips and not the brain, then learning can be more difficult.

Brain scans show that children learn best when they are actually moving and learning at the same time. Movement stimulates the necessary neurons and electrical wiring that facilitates the child’s ability to take in information and learn. Jenson (2000) states that movement facilitates learning by creating a greater number of synaptic/neural connections in the brain.

Science has provided actual visual evidence that we grow new brain cells when we are physically active. A region of the brain called the hippocampus, examined prior to physical activity, shows increased blood flow after physical activity. Play activities increase the blood volume, which elicits evidence that new cells are forming in this area (figure 1). MRI and PET scans now show the actual growth of a new neural connection after the stimulus of physical activity (figure 2).  There is no longer a question of IF activity impacts the brain; we can now see the evidence on brain scans. Altering our experience will alter our brains; therefore play experiences at school WILL CHANGE the brain.

Figure 1 - How the Brain Changes with Physical Activity
Figure 1 - How the Brain Changes with Exercise

Figure 2 - Growing New Neural Connections
Figure 2 - Growing New Neural Connections

There is a multitude of research that demonstrates that students need adequate amounts of play/physical education throughout the school day.  The reasons include not only preventing obesity and obesity-related issues, but to enhance academic performance. The original landmark study in Physical Education that generated findings in the mind-body connection came out of the California Department of Education (CDE, 2005). The CDE study found that students with higher fitness scores also had higher academic achievement.  In subsequent years, the fit kids scored twice as well on academic tests, as their unfit peers using fitness gram (Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, 1992).         

The multitude of research evidence, since the 90’s, can be summarized into three overall categories regarding physical activity and the brain. 

  1. Increased time in Physical Education was found to have a positive relationship with academic achievement.
  2. Positive associations have been found between classroom based physical activity and attitudes, academic behavior and academic achievement.
  3. Reducing time in physical education does not guarantee improvement in academics.

Each category will be examined below, with additional studies and a brief explanation of how the study is supported by the brain-body connection.

  1. Increased time in PE was found to have a positive relationship with academic achievement:
  • In 1977 the Trois-Rivieres study looked at the effect of Physical Education on children as they moved from 1st – 6th grade.  Results showed academic performance proved to be significantly higher in those exposed to daily PE  (Shephard & Trudeau, 2005).
  • Principals continue to take away physical activity in favor of increasing time in the classroom with academics. Wilkens, Graham, et al. in 2003, were able to demonstrate that increasing time in physical education does not negatively influence academic achievement & decreasing time in PE will not ensure that children perform any better in the classroom.
  • Data collected on 312, 6th-8th graders using an established fitness program and student letter grades throughout the year in four core classes and on a standardized test found fit kids finish first in the classroom. The fittest kids had the highest test scores and the best grades, regardless of gender (Coe, Pivarnik, Womack, Reeves & Malina, 2006).
  1. Positive associations have been found between classroom based Physical Activity and attitudes, academic behavior and academic achievement:
  • Castelli et al. (2007), a researcher at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign looked at the relationship between physical fitness and academic performance in 259 third and fifth graders. The researchers agreed that there was a strong association between aerobic fitness and performance on standardized testing, grades, and other measures of cognitive performance.  Aerobic exercise (as well as BMI) was related to achievement in reading and math.  Castelli notes that a single 10-minute bout of physical activity in an academic setting boosts attention and problem-solving skills in kids (Castelli et al. 2007).
  • The School Health, Academic Performance and Exercise study (SHAPE) conducted in Australia looked at changes in math, reading and fitness scores among children that were randomly assigned to fitness, skill or regular physical education classes.  The academic achievement of the groups did not differ in spite of the fact that students in the experimental groups spent over four times longer in physical education and significantly less time in academic classes (Dwyer et al. 1983).
  • In 2004, a panel of noted researchers’ in various academic and medical fields (from kinesiology to pediatrics) did a massive review of literature of more than 850 studies) on the effects of physical activity on school age children. They supported the findings of the CDE study and also found that physical activity has a positive influence on memory, concentration and classroom behavior (Strong et al. 2005).
  1. Reducing time in physical education does not guarantee improvement in academics:
  • Wilkens, Graham et.al. 2003 found that increasing time in physical education does not negatively influence academic achievement and decreasing time in Physical Education will not ensure that children perform any better
  • A group of researchers from 1996-2007 found that sacrificing PE for classroom time does not improve academic performance (Shepard, 1996; Dwyer, 1996; Sallis, 1999; Ahamed, 2007; Coe, 2006).

The research is overwhelmingly in favor of promoting positive implications in the connection between movement and learning. Overall, the implications show that:

  • There is substantial evidence that play/physical activities can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores.
  • Play/physical activity can have an impact on cognitive skills, attitudes, academic behavior, concentration, attention, and classroom behavior.
  • Increasing or maintaining time dedicated to play/physical activity does not appear to adversely impact academic performance.

While many schools are reducing physical activity because of time constraints created by the No Child Left Behind Act a large group of studies has linked physical activity with cognition. The research compares academic achievement between schools where kids have physical activity and those where they don't. All the studies are correct in revealing how physical experience affects the brain. We know that the brain is enhanced by physical activity. The brain is involved in EVERYTHING we do at school and to ignore it is irresponsible!


Ahamed, Y., Macdonald, H., Reed, K., Naylor, PJ., Liu-Ambrose, T., & McKay, H. (2007). School-based physical activity does not compromise children's academic performance. Medicine & Science in Sports Exercise, 39(2), 371-6.

Blaydes, J. (2000). How to make learning a moving experience.  Action Based Learning.

Castelli, D., Hillman, C., Buck, S., & Erwin, H. (2007). Physical fitness and academic achievement in third- and fifth-grade students. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29(2), 239-52.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Association between School-based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2010.

Coe, D., Peterson, T., Blair, C., Schutten, M., & Peddie, H. (2013). Physical fitness, academic achievement, and socioeconomic status in school-aged youth. Journal of School Health, 83(7), 500-507.

Coe, D., Pivarnik, J., Womack, C., Reeves, M.,  & Malina, R. (2006). Effect of physical education and activity levels on academic achievement in children. Medicine & Science in Sports Exercise, 38(8), 1515-9.

Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research. (1992). The Prudential FITNESSGRAM® Test Administration Manual. Dallas, TX: The Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research.

Dwyer, T., Blizzard, L., & Dean, K., (1996). Physical activity and performance in children. Nutrition Reviews. 54, 27-31.

Dwyer, T., Coonan, W., Leitch, D., Hetzel, B., & Baghurst, R. (1983). An investigation of the effects of daily physical activity on the health of primary school students in South Australia. International Journal of Epidemiology. 12(3), 308-13.

California Department of Education. (2005). California Physical Fitness Test: A Study of the Relationship Between Physical Fitness and Academic Achievement in California Using 2004 Test Results. California Department of Education, Sacramento, CA. (http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/pf/documents/2004pftresults.doc)

Gabriel, G. (2001). Will the real brain based learning please stand up.  Brain Connection.com  (http://brainconnection.brainhq.com/2001/08/26/will-the-real-brain-based-...)

Hesslow, G. (1994) Will neuroscience explain consciousness? Journal of Theoretical Biology. 171:29-39.

Jenson, E. (2000). Brain based learning. The Brain Store, San Diego, CA.

Kwak, L., Kremers, S., Bergman, P., Ruiz, J., Rizzo, N., & Sjöström, M. (2009). Associations between physical activity, fitness, and academic achievement. The Journal of Pediatrics, 155 (6), 914-918.

Ratey, J.  (2008). SPARK: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY.

Sallis, J., McKenzie, T., Kolody, B., Lewis, M., Marshall, S., & Rosengard, P. (1999). Effects of health-related physical education on academic achievement: Project SPARK. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 70, 127-34.

Shephard, R. & Trudeau, F. (2005). Lessons learned from the Trois-Rivieres physical education study: A retrospective. Peadiatric Exercise Science, 17, 112.

Shephard, R. (1996). Habitual physical activity and academic performance. Nutrition Reviews. 54(4 Pt 2), S32-S36.

Strong, W., Malina, R., Blimkie, C., Daniels, S., Dishman, R., Gutin, B. & Trudeau, F. (2005). Evidence based physical activity for school-age youth. The Journal of Pediatrics, 146(6), 732-737.

Wilkins, J., Graham, G., Parker, S., Westfall, S., Fraser, R. & Tembo, M. (2003). Time in the Arts and Physical Education and School Achievement, Journal  of Curriculum Studies, 35 (6) 721-34. 

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