What are the cognitive benefits of physical activity?

لعدد العدد 07 ・ 15/04/2016

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Physical activity in schools has long been acknowledged to have health benefits. Recently the developing field of cognitive science has deepened our understanding of the link between physical activity and cognitive ability. This research has revealed that time spent exercising complements time spent in academic classes, suggesting that both are necessary for optimal cognitive development.

General Introduction

The research around the effects of exercise on academic ability exists on multiple levels. Some studies use achievement measured through academic assessments to measure the effect of exercise. Other studies investigate at a micro level, which makes some additional vocabulary useful.

Executive function is a grouping of skills that use the brain’s prefrontal cortex for creative thinking and reasoning. Specifically, it includes three parts:

  • Working memory is a cognitive function that allows information to be kept in mind at the same time as it is being used in thought processes.
  • Inhibitory control is the ability to resist external distraction and internal urges.
  • Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch between thinking about different concepts and process unanticipated information.

Research Examples

How does exercise affect academic achievement?

Studies on how physical activity influences academic achievement primarily focus on associations between fitness levels, frequency of exercise, and standardized achievement tests. One study split 1,490 grades two and three children into a control group and a group that followed a weekly exercise program for 3 years, assessing their achievement scores and body-mass index. Another study investigated the correlation of fourth, sixth, and eighth grade students’ fitness achievement and mathematics and English scores. Results: Over the course of 3 years, grades two and three children who did at least 90 minutes of activity a week had increased achievement on a 100-point scale in reading (1 vs. -2), spelling (4 vs. -.4) and arithmetic (8 vs. 1). The chances of fourth, sixth, and eighth grade students passing the mathematics test increased by 38% for every fitness test passed. For English, the chances were 24% for every fitness test passed.

Does exercise benefit mathematics learning?

Some studies have specifically investigated mathematics gains correlated with exercise. One study of 9 and 10 year old students investigated the fitness levels of children, their brain structures, and mathematics achievement. The study controlled for general intelligence and family background. Results: The study found that more fit students had more developed pre-frontal cortexes (the area associated with executive functioning) and also performed better on the math section of the assessment. Brain scans in the analysis suggest that fitness benefits brain development and, by extension, mathematics achievement.

How does exercise affect inhibitory control?

In these studies inhibitory control is commonly measured by having students accomplish a task that requires them to ignore a distracting stimulus such as seeing the word “red” written in green and having to name its color. In one study, two hundred 7-9 year old children were randomly assigned to a 9-month-long fitness program. They were given pre- and post tests to measure inhibition. Results: Students in the fitness program significantly improved their inhibitory control relative to the non-fitness group. The most effective programs were training in aerobics, traditional martial arts, yoga, and mindfulness.

How does exercise influence cognitive response time and accuracy?

Numerous studies have found that exercising and fitness enables students to respond more quickly in exercises requiring them to identify a stimulus such as whether a letter is a vowel or not. One study investigated if these results are also true with twins who have different levels of exercise. A group of 9 pairs of twins ages 11-14 were split between an intensive exercise program and a standard physical education program. Pre- and post tests were conducted that used a matching task to measure response speed and accuracy. Results: Both groups increased in speed over time by an average of 15 milliseconds. Those in the more intensive program on average responded with 5.9% greater accuracy than the untrained group.

Does exercise influence creative thinking ability?

Some studies have found that exercise primarily increases creative ability. In one study, eighth grade children were split into two groups: a standard physical education class and an aerobic exercise program. Their fitness was measured over the course of 8 weeks and also took pre- and post assessments of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. Results: students in the aerobics class increased their scores on average by 57% more than the control group in the area of figural creativity.

How does exercise affect working memory?

The influence of exercise on working memory depends somewhat on the individual’s starting level and age. One study measured adults’ performance on a working memory task before and after a 30-minute aerobic workout. Another study of 7-9 year olds had one group of students who participated in a 9-month exercise program and a control of students who applied but were wait-listed. Results: Adults with initially lower levels of working memory increased their scores by an average of 3.46 points after the aerobic exercise. All 7-9 year olds in the fitness program increased their accuracy on working memory tasks by an average of 3.6%.

How does exercise affect cognitive flexibility?

Using the same data as the experiment above, this study measured students’ performance on a cognitive flexibility task over the course of participating in a 9-month long fitness program. Brain scans were also conducted while the students performed the task. Results: While both groups showed improvement, the improvement of the experimental group was 4.8% greater. Furthermore, the brain scans showed more widespread activity in the exercise group.

How does exercise influence mental health?

The exact outcomes of studies on exercise and mental health vary between the mental health attribute being examined and the experimental methods. A meta-analysis of 73 studies calculated the mental health traits where exercise has the greatest effect. Results: a review of randomized-control studies showed that regular exercise programs contribute to reducing children’s depression, anxiety, psychological distress, emotional disturbance, and to increasing self-esteem.


Academic achievement, mathematics, inhibition ability, cognitive response time, creative thinking, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and mental health—the list of the cognitive benefits of fitness and exercise is long. Promoting physical activity in schools plays a key role in brain development, furthering learning, and general cognitive ability.


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“Aerobic fitness and cognitive development: Event-related brain potential and task performance indices of executive control in preadolescent children” by Charles H. Hillman, Sarah M. Buck, Jason R. Themanson, Matthew B. Pontifex, and Darla M. Castelli, Developmental Psychology, 2009, 45(1), 114.

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“Exercise and children’s intelligence, cognition, and academic achievement” by Philip Tomporowski, Catherine L. Davis, Patricia H. Miller, and Jack A. Naglieri, Educational Psychology Review, 2008, 20(2), 111-131.

“The Role of Aerobic Fitness in Cortical Thickness and Mathematics Achievement in Preadolescent Children” by Laura Chaddock-Heyman, Kirk I. Erickson, Caitlin Kienzler, Matthew King, Matthew B. Pontifex, Lauren B. Raine, Charles H. Hillman, and Arthur F. Kramer, PLoS ONE, 2015, 10(8).

“Influence of physical exertion on mental performance with reference to training” by Yannis Zervas, Apostolos Danis, and Vassilis Klissouras, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1991, 72(3c), 1215-1221.

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“Physical Activity Across the Curriculum (PAAC): a randomized controlled trial to promote physical activity and diminish overweight and obesity in elementary school children” by Joseph E. Donnelly, Jerry L. Greene, Cheryl A. Gibson, Bryan K. Smith, Richard A. Washburn, Debra K. Sullivan, Katrina DuBose et al., Preventive Medicine, 2009, 49(4), 336-341.

“The effects of an afterschool physical activity program on working memory in preadolescent children” by Keita Kamijo, Matthew B. Pontifex, Kevin C. O’Leary, Mark R. Scudder, Chien‐Ting Wu, Darla M. Castelli, and Charles H. Hillman, Developmental Science, 2011, 14(5), 1046-1058.

“The psychology, physiology, and creativity of middle school aerobic exercisers” by J. Scoott Hinkle, Bruce W. Tuckman, and James P. Sampson, Elementary School Guidance & Counseling, 1993, 28(2), 133-145.

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“The relationship of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity to cognitive processing in adolescents: findings from the ALSPAC birth cohort” By Dominika Pindus, Robert D. Moore Davis, Charles H. Hillman, Stephan Bandelow, Eef Hogervorst, Stuart JH Biddle, and Lauren B. Sherar, Psychological Research, 2015, 79(5), 715-728.