A Brief History Lesson: Academic Performance and Physical Activity

This guest blog post was written by our research adviser, Christina Galardi.

academic girls

First, let’s start with a pop quiz to get your brain working - I’ll give the answers at the end.

  • When did research first connect academics and physical activity?
  • What major federal policy increased pressure for more instructional time in schools, often resulting in cuts to physical education?
  • When were the last Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans published?

Here’s a harder question: what do we know about the relationship between physical activity and fitness and academic performance?

A brief history lesson drawn from a 2014 article by Castelli and others provides us with a great overview of how this area of research has evolved and where it is today.

Early Stages

  • 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 in 1967. The study, conducted by Ismail, was designed to measure IQ among 142 fifth and sixth-grade children participating in an exercise program and didn’t find an effect. Tomporowski and others (2008) suggest that today’s cognitive tests of attention, information-processing, and working are better ways to measure changes brought on by physical activity than IQ because IQ is a single score that is not sensitive enough to show small changes in mental function.
  • Early research was also based on grading scales and tests that varied by teacher, which are more subjective than standardized academic assessments typically used in the research today.  As research in this area has developed, protocols have been refined and improved, allowing for more accurate comparisons of results across classrooms and schools.
  • Research in the 1980s was focused specifically on sport participation and academic performance.

Health Focus

  • In the 1990s researchers focused on the effects of specific interventions on health with academic performance as a secondary outcome.
  • A research review by Shepherd in 1997 encouraged a more holistic look at health as an important part of school curriculum.

Digging Deeper

  • In the 2000s, research shifted from an academic achievement focus to study of the impact of physical activity on mental function, attention, and working memory.
  • In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act emphasized classroom instructional time, which often limited physical education and physical activity opportunities during the school day. Exploring the effects of this tradeoff, studies emerged to show that physical activity could improve performance and “need not be sacrificed for academic excellence,” as described by Trost in 2009.
  • Researchers recommended more study on dose-response relationships (i.e., the right intensity and amount of physical activity to achieve an effect). This information could be used to make recommendations for optimal levels of physical activity, particularly to incorporate into school settings, to improve academic 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 too.

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

Active Living Research recently published a research brief that updates the body of evidence connecting these factors, which followed a previous publication in 2009. What’s changed since then? What more do we know?  In 2009, the research conclusion was neutral: “school-based physical activity does not adversely affect academic performance.” Today, more standardized research with sensitive data collection is helping us gather more accurate information. The evidence is stronger, and although we don’t know all the answers, we can more definitely say: “active kids learn better.”

We’ve recently updated the information in our Resource Center on this topic. As you browse our Academic Performance and Attendance section, do you see any key research we’ve missed? Pass it on and we’ll include it on our website!

Quiz Answers:

  • When did research first connect academics and physical activity?  1967
  • What major federal policy increased pressure for more instructional time in schools, often resulting in cuts to physical education?  No Child Left Behind Act
  • When were the last Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans published? 2008


Castelli, D.M., Glowacki, E., Barcelona, J.M., Calvert, H.G., & Hwang, J. (2015). Active Education: Growing Evidence on Physical Activity and Academic Performance. [Research brief.] Active Living Research.http://activelivingresearch.org/sites/default/files/ALR_Brief_ActiveEducation_Jan2015.pdf

Castelli, D. M., Centeio, E. E., Hwang, J., Barcelona, J. M., Glowacki, E. M., Calvert, H. G. and Nicksic, H. M. (2014). VII. The History of Physical Activity and Academic Performance Research: Informing The Future. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 79: 119–148. doi: 10.1111/mono.12133.

Davis, C. L. and Cooper, S. (2011). Fitness, fatness, cognition, behavior, and academic achievement among overweight children: Do cross-sectional associations correspond to exercise trial outcomes? Preventive Medicine, 52, Supplement(0): S65-S69.

Hillman, C.H., Pontifex, M.B., Raine, L.B., Castelli, D.M., Hall, E.E., & Kramer, A.F. (2009). The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience, 159(3), 1044-1054. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2009.01.057

Raine, L.B., Lee, H.K., Saliba, B.J., Chaddock-Heyman, L., Hillman, C.H., et al. . (2013). The Influence of Childhood Aerobic Fitness on Learning and Memory. PLoS ONE, 8(9), e72666. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072666

Roberts, C.K., Freed, B., McCarthy, W.J. (2010). Low Aerobic Fitness and Obesity Are Associated With Lower Standardized Test Scores in Children. Journal of Pediatrics, 156(5), 711-718. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2009.11.039

Sardinha, L. B., Marques, A., Martins, S., Palmeira, A., & Minderico, C. (2014). Fitness, fatness, and academic performance in seventh-grade elementary school students. BMC Pediatrics, 14(1), 176.

Shephard, R.J. (1997). “Curricular Physical Activity and Academic Performance.” Pediatric Exercise Science, 9:113-126.

Tomporowski, P.D., Davis, C.L., Miller, P.H., Naglieri, J.A. (2008). Exercise and Children’s Intelligence, Cognition, and Academic Achievement. Educ Psychol Rev, 20(2), 111-131.  doi:10.1007/s10648-007-9057-0.

Trost, S.G. (2009). Active Education: Physical Education, Physical Activity and Academic Performance. A Research Brief. Princeton, NJ: Active Living Research, a National Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Summer. http://activelivingresearch.org/files/ALR_Brief_ActiveEducation_Summer20...