Physical Activity and Academic Success

Physical activity has long been promoted as means to improve physical health, especially in regards to decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.1 More recently, the evidence supporting the benefits of exercise on mental health, including improved mood and health-related quality of life, has been increasing.1 The discovery of these mental health benefits has lead to research on the relationship between physical activity and brain function. Results of these studies suggest there is a significant relationship between physical activity and academic performance in children.2

Considering the relationship between physical activity and academic performance, schools enhance their students education by scheduling time for physical activity during the school day.3,4 Although pressure to improve academic scores has lead to a reduction in physical education time in favor of additional time for academic subjects, evidence has shown that increasing time for academic subjects by reducing time for physical activity does not improve academic performance .5 In fact, increasing or maintaining time spent being physically active may actually improve academic performance.6

Why Does it Work

There are several physiological effects of exercise on the brain thought to be responsible for the benefits of exercise on cognition. Exercise increases cerebral blood flow, increases levels of stress reducing and mood elevating endorphins and norepinephrine, and increases levels of nerve growth factors that help grow new nerve cells and support synaptic plasticity (changes in structure and function of synaptic connections). Synaptic plasticity is thought to be a central mechanism in learning and memory.7-12

Besides physiological effects, physical activity positively affects concentration and classroom behavior.5 Physical fitness also correlates with better attendance and fewer disciplinary incidents, and participation in school based physical activity programs is correlated with lower drop out rates.3,4


Although physical activity is insufficient for most American children, in general, females spend less time being active compared to males and black and Hispanic youth spend less time being active compared to white youth.13 Also, children of lower SES have also been reported to have lower levels of physical activity than children of high SES.14

Studies have found a relationship between improved academic performance and physical activity regardless of race or socioeconomic status.5 Thus physical activity may be an especially important in schools that have high percentages of minority or low socioeconomic status students. Populations participating in less physical activity certainly have more to gain from a physical health perspective from school physical activity programs, and may have more to gain in their academic pursuits as well.3

Resources for More Information and Ideas


  1. Penedo FJ, Dahn JR. Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2005;18(2):189-193
  2. Singh A, Uijtdewillige, L, Twisk JWR, van Mechelen W, Chinapaw MJW. Physical Activity and Performance at School: A Systematic Review of the Literature Including a Methodological Quality Assessment. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012;166(1):49-55
  3. Basch, CE. Healthier Students Are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap. Journal of School Health. 2011;81: 593–598.
  4. Trost, SG. Active Education: Physical Education, Physical Activity and Academic Performance. North. 2007; 26:6-9. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Retrieved from
  5. Trudeau F, Shephard RJ. Physical education, school physical activity, school sports and academic performance. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2008;510
  6. 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.
  7. Jorgensen LG, Nowak M, Ide K, Secher NH. Cerebral blood flow and metabolism. In: Saltin B, Boushel R, Secher N, Mitchell J, eds. Exercise and Circulation in Health and Disease. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers; 2000:113-236
  8. Fleshner M. Exercise and neuroendocrine regulation of antibody production: protective effect of physical activity on stress-induced suppression of the specific antibody response. Int J Sports Med. 2000;21(suppl 1) S14-S19
  9. Winter B, Breitenstein C, Mooren FC, et al. High impact running improves learning. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2007;87(4):597-609
  10. Yeung RR. The acute effects of exercise on mood state. J Psychosom Res. 1996;40(2):123-141
  11. van Praag H, Kempermann G, Gage FH. Running increases cell proliferation and neurogenesis in the adult mouse dentate gyrus. Nat Neurosci. 1999;2(3):266-270
  12. Hillman CH, Erickson KI, Kramer AF. Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008;9(1):58-65
  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States. MMWR 2012;61(4): 35
  14. Drenowatz C, Eisenmann JC, Pfeiffer KA, Welk G, Heelan K, Gentile D, Walsh D. Influence of socio-economic status on habitual physical activity and sedentary behavior in 8- to 11-year old children. BMC Public Health. 2010; 10: 214.

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