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Cognitive benefits of exercise for children

This is an excerpt from Physiology of Sport and Exercise 7th Edition With Web Study Guide-Loose-Leaf Edition.

Research Perspective 17.1

Cognitive Benefits of Exercise for Children

Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase in classroom teaching time in an effort to improve standardized testing and academic achievement scores, involving predominately sedentary learning activities. In order to provide this increased teaching time, extensive cuts to nonacademic areas, especially those involving physical activity such as physical education and recess, have become the norm. However, a growing body of literature suggests that the exact opposite approach should likely be considered.


Physical activity/fitness and nutrition/overweight are two focus areas for Healthy People 2020, a comprehensive health promotion and disease prevention initiative by the Department of Health and Human Services. These are important objectives because childhood and youth physical inactivity is a growing concern and the percentage of youth considered overweight has more than tripled in the past 20 years. These statistics are alarming because of the propensity for physical inactivity and obesity to lead to chronic diseases. Schools remain an important setting in which to promote national health objectives, including lifetime physical activity. This is especially important given that physical activity habits develop very early in childhood and track over time from youth to adulthood. Thus, school programs can create expectations for regular physical activity that can persist into adulthood.


The health benefits of regular physical activity are clear. Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores. Additionally, physical activity also affects cognitive skills and attitudes as well as academic behavior, all of which improve overall academic performance, likely via improvements in concentration, attention, and classroom behavior. This scientific evidence can, and perhaps should, be used to implement policy change, gain support and funding for physical activity programs at schools and in the community, change lifestyle habits, reduce medical and financial burdens, and improve overall quality of life. Thus, physical and health education provides the foundation for healthy and active lifestyles throughout life.7