Physical Education’s Benefits for Student Learning


During my last professional placement, I have noticed that year three students did not have an ongoing physical activity program in their curriculum. I believe that physical education is necessary for students of all ages to improve both their physical health and learning capacity. As such, adding physical education to the year three curriculum may be beneficial to the academic performance of the students as well as their well-being. This essay is a review of the literature on the topic of physical education and academic achievement.

Physical Activity and Cognitive Function

The first study reviewed deals with the biological effect of physical activity on the mental capacity of animals and humans. Pilc and Zoladz (2010) discuss some studies performed on rodents and state that in addition to the positive effects of exercise on the physical state and mood of a living being, it also influences the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Daily physical activity significantly elevates the production of BDNF, and its level stays heightened for some time even after the end of the training regimen. Interestingly, different activities appear to affect various parts of the brain in a relationship that is yet to be fully explored.

BDNF is crucial to the brain’s functioning, but its effects have not yet been thoroughly studied, although a higher concentration of the factor appears to correlate with improved mood and cognitive function. The authors of the paper provide some potential benefits of the factor, including improved learning capacity, as well as the disorders associated with low concentrations of BDNF. They also mention recent research suggesting that the production of the factor can be significantly enhanced with just one bout of exercise but add that the results are not yet consistent and further investigation is necessary.

Attitudes of Students towards Physical Education

The second study focuses on the opinion of the students themselves about the necessity of physical education in their curriculum. The survey conducted by Zeng, Hipscher, and Leung (2011) encompassed 1,317 questionnaires filled by grade 9-12 students from ten schools in New York with the average age of 16.79 years. The questions estimated the student’s attitude towards physical education activities as well as their preferred sports and activities. Each student had one mandatory physical education lesson per day, five days a week.

The results of the survey show a positive reaction from the target group, with the primary factors forming the opinions being the benefit, the perception of PA as crucial to education, the attitude of self-improvement through exercise, and the value obtained. The students liked individual sports more than dual ones, but less than team games. Their favorite activities were aerobics, dance, weightlifting, outdoor adventure, and martial arts. The authors conclude the paper with recommendations that the lessons be expanded to engage more students in greater depth.

Physical Activity and Academic Performance

The third and fourth studies both investigate the influence of physical activity on the academic success of school students. They measure both objective and self-reported physical activity and its effects on specific areas of academic performance. In both cases, the results show a correlation between exercise and improved results in other areas, although the authors note that they could not establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Nevertheless, the findings should be considered in light of the prevailing view that physical education improves cognitive function.

The third study took place in six learning centers in Spain, with 487 children between 9 and 16 volunteering for the survey. Morales, Gonzalez, Guerra, Virgili, and Unnithan (2011) divided the participants into two age groups above and below 12 and distributed a clinical history questionnaire. Based on the answers, they further split the groups into children who only participated in the curriculum-defined physical activity and those who exercised outside the school as well. Children with significantly greater training than the average were excluded from the study. Then, the participants took a variety of perceptual-motor and academic tests to evaluate their performance and the differences between the groups.

According to the researchers, “performance in perceptual-motor tests appear to be related to academic achievement, that is, subjects obtaining good results in perceptual-motor tests also perform well in cognitive tests” (Morales et al., 2011, p. 410). In turn, high performance in perceptual-motor tests is associated with physical activity, which continually utilizes and trains those skills. The authors state they cannot establish a causal relationship and provide contemporary literature that both supports and opposes the idea, but conclude that the relationship warrants further investigation.

The fourth, and final, study encompassed 277 children from five schools in Finland, with the mean age being 12.2 years. According to Syväoja (2014), they were given a self-reported questionnaire to estimate their perceived physical activity and time spent interacting with a screen. Then, their actual physical activity was measured with an accelerometer, though it was removed during water activities. The education services provided the academic achievement scores of the students, and the cognitive abilities of the children were evaluated using a specialized utility, focusing on visual memory, executive function, and attention.

The conclusion reached by Syväoja (2014) is that actual physical activity improves the students’ performance in attention-based tests, but not in other areas. However, self-reported physical activity correlates with improved results in all facets of academic achievement, which may imply that children who perceive the exercise as performed of their volition benefit more from it. Additionally, self-reported screen time, which is time spent passively interacting with a television or computer screen, is negatively associated with academic performance. The author suggests promoting physical activity in school settings and encouraging an overall physically active lifestyle.

The data presented in these papers is not conclusive, but it appears to imply a positive relationship between physical activity and achievement in other learning areas. As such, action studies involving an increased amount of physical education classes in the curriculum and their effect on the academic performance of the students may be warranted. Furthermore, it may be beneficial for schools to promote a more physically active lifestyle among students, as the passive spending of free time may be harmful to cognitive abilities.


The reviewed literature studies various aspects of physical activity and its effects on the academic achievements of students. The data generally show a correlation between exercise and improved cognitive functions as well as superior performance on tests. Increased amounts of physical education in the curriculum, as well as an enhanced variety of activities, also appear to be desirable to the students themselves. As such, I postulate the following research question: does an ongoing physical activity program for year 3 students improve learning in other key areas?


Morales, J., González, L. M., Guerra, M., Virgili, C., & Unnithan, V. (2011). Physical activity, perceptual-motor performance, and academic learning in 9-to-16-years-old school children. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 42(4), 401-415. Web.

Pilc, J., & Zoladz, J. A. (2010). The effect of physical activity on the brain derived neurotrophic factor: From animal to human studies. Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 61(5), 533-541. Web.

Syväoja, H. (2014). Physical activity and sedentary behaviour in association with academic performance and cognitive functions in school-aged children. Web.

Zeng, H. Z., Hipscher, M., & Leung, R. W. (2011). Attitudes of high school students toward physical education and their sport activity preferences. Journal of Social Sciences, 7(4), 529. Web.

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