Physical Education Enhances Cognition

The Effects of Enhanced Physical Education on Academic Achievement

Schools around the country are reducing the amount of time devoted to PE. It is the predominate feeling among some administrators that physical education reduces the instruction time in core academic subjects. These administrators fail to see the connection between physical education and classroom learning. This month I decided to research this topic. Here are a few of the key findings:

Connection Between The Body and The Mind

Human and animal studies show brain areas involved in movement and learning are intimately connected, and physical activity could increase those neural connections (Uensen,1998; Shephard, 1997). Learning complex movement sequences stimulates the prefrontal cortex used in learning and problem solving, and this effect could improve learning. Neuroimaging data revealed changes in neural activity in the prefrontal cortex  corresponding to the benefit of exercise on executive function observed in the exercise groups.

A review of over a hundred studies concluded that physical activity is associated with selected advantages in cognitive function, specifically math, acuity and reaction time (Thomas, Landers, Salazar, & Etnier, 1994) .

Improving Grades

Statewide studies have found a positive relationship between FitnessGram (a fitness assessment and reporting program for youth) scores and performance on academic achievement tests. Another large and long-tern study was conducted in Trois Rivieres, in Quebec, Canada, beginning in the mid 1970s (Shephard,jeQuier, LaVallee, LeBarre, & Rajic, 1980; Shephard, LaVallee, VoIle, LaBarre, & Beaucage,1994; Shephard et al., 1984). Students in first through sixth grades received increased time for physical education and decreased time for other types of instruction. Improvements were reported, not only in fitness and psychomotor abilities, but in class grades also.

Improving Attention Span and Classroom Behavior

Physical activity might alter attention span through neurohormonal mechanisms, which could improve the child’s ability to focus in the classroom (Shephard, 1997). A summary of the fifty most rigorous studies exploring the relationship between indicators of physical activity and academic performance found 251 associations between physical activity and academic performance, representing measures of academic achievement, academic behavior, and cognitive skills and attitudes. Of all the associations examined, slightly more than half (50.5%) were positive, 48% were not significant, and only 1.5% were negative.


In a period when greater emphasis is being placed on preparing children to take standardized tests, these studies should give school administrators reasons to consider investing in quality physical education and vigorous activity programs, even at the expense of time spent in the classroom. Time devoted to physical activity at school  may actually improve academic performance.

The health benefits of physical activity are well-known. Therefore, the implementation of accessible, low-cost physical activity programs for youth should be pursued without delay.

These well-researched benefits are playing out everyday here at Foothills Montessori School both on the field and in the classroom. Our students are getting fit and staying healthy during PE. When they return to the classroom, the effects of exercise are enhancing the already incredible work our teachers are doing.