Student Achievement

Physical Activity in Class Leads to Improved Test Scores, Study Finds

By Bryan Toporek — May 20, 2011 2 min read
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Combining physical activity with traditional classroom lessons led to a 13 percentage-point increase in test scores at a struggling Charleston, S.C., elementary school, according to a recent study.

The study examined 105 students, 1st grade through 6th, who had been participating in 40 minutes of physical education classes per week before the start of the program. Once the study started, the students began 40 minutes of exercise during school hours each day, with age-appropriate academic content accompanying the physical activity.

The 1st and 2nd grade students “learned developmentally appropriate movement skills while basic academic skills were reinforced,” according to a press release

from the Pediatric Academic Societies. (The students hopped through ladders while naming the colors of each rung, for example.) Students in 3rd through 6th grade had access to exercise equipment with television screens, meaning the students could run on a treadmill while an accompanying screen showed a geography lesson that the students could “run through.”

To measure the academic results of this activity-based program, the school compared test scores from the year before the program with test scores from the year of the program’s implementation. The researchers set personal test score goals for each student, based on the student’s score on the previous year’s test and the national average.

Overall, the percentage of students meeting that personal goal increased from 55 percent to 68.5 percent after the implementation of the program.

Of the 105 students who participated in the program, 32 reached their personal goal after not meeting their goal before the onset of the program. However, 18 students who had previous met their goal did not reach their new goal after the program was initiated.

The study was led by Drs. Kathryn L. King and Carly J. Scahill, both pediatric residents at the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital.

“These data indicate that when carefully designed physical education programs are put into place, children’s academic achievement does not suffer,” Dr. King said in the press release. (To hear the researchers discuss their study, click here.)

At this point, these findings about physical activity boosting students’ academic performance shouldn’t be considered all that surprising. A recent study out of West Virginia of 5th and 7th graders found that students with better aerobic fitness tended to score higher on standardized tests. And a study from earlier this year charted how physical activity improved cognitive function in students.

The true value of this South Carolina-based study could end up being the conclusion that “physical education and academic instruction need not be mutually exclusive,” as the press release states. If teachers can work exercise-based activities into their day-to-day lesson plans while maintaining an academic focus, those lessons could end up improving both students’ minds and their bodies.

The National Association of Sport and Physical Education recommends

that students receive 150+ minutes of physical education each week in elementary school. NASPE also recommends that children of all ages get at least 60 minutes of physical activity on a daily basis.

Currently, only Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana meet NASPE’s 150-minutes-per-week standard for physical education in elementary schools, according to the organization’s 2010 Shape of the Nation


Perhaps exercise-based academic lessons can be a way for schools to kill two birds with one stone.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.