Academic Performance and Physical Activity: A Brief History Lesson

What do we know about the relationship between physical activity and fitness, and academic performance? This brief lesson, drawn from a 2014 article by Castelli and others, provides an overview of how this area of research has evolved and where we are today.

Paving the Way

Research on psychological benefits of physical activity began in the 1950s and 1960s, with the first large-scale study of physical activity and academic achievement taking place in 1967. In the 2000s, research shifted from an academic achievement focus, using metrics like IQ, to studying the impact of physical activity on mental function, attention, and working memory. In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act emphasized classroom instructional time, often limiting physical education and physical activity opportunities during the school day. Exploring the effects of this tradeoff, studies emerged showing that physical activity could improve performance and “need not be sacrificed for academic excellence,” as described by Trost in 2009. In the late 2000s, researchers recommended more study on dose-response relationships, in other words, exploring the optimal duration and intensity of physical activity required to elicit an increase in performance.  


Where do we go from here?

Castelli and others (2014) recommend more research on the right intensity and settings for physical activity, differences by grade levels, impact of policy, effects over time, and causal relationships. There are many variables, including demographics, age, gender, type of task, and learning style, that may play a role in affecting the relationship between physical activity and academic achievement, and researchers should look at those as well.

Currently, researchers are looking more broadly at academic performance, physical fitness, physical activity, and cognitive development, showing results like these:


What Can Planners Do?

Active Living Research recently published a research brief that outlines the impacts of active living. The evidence is strong and although we don’t know all the answers, we can say with more certainty: active kids learn better. As planners, we must always remember that the shape and features of a neighborhood impacts much more than just physical health and well-being. More time spent sitting in cars or buses is not only detrimental to the physical health of young people but it is likely contributing to lackluster academic performance as well. Planning for active living is planning for healthier, smarter communities.

To learn more, visit the Resource Center from the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.


About the Author: Christina Galardi is a third-year master’s student pursuing dual degrees in City and Regional Planning and Public Health. At the intersection of these two disciplines, her areas of focus are capacity-building to support active living and healthy eating, traffic-related injury prevention, and improved access to medical services. She serves as a research advisor for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.