What if regular physical exercise possessed the ability to improve cognition and mental health along with payoffs in body composition? If parents and educators promote exercise in childhood, even in the classroom, imagine the payoff in terms of academic performance! Here’s why classroom movement is not only important, but necessary, for fitness professionals to promote.

Aerobic Boosts for Learning

An emerging body of research points to the influence of aerobic activity on many aspects of brain function, inducing changes on molecular, cellular and behavioral levels. Studies conducted on both animals and humans reveal how aerobic exercise can foster improvements in cognition, leading to an uptick in academic performance. As fitness professionals, we often inform parents that a lack of physical activity may lead to childhood obesity. As it turns out, exercise not only fosters better physical health, but also serves to improve school performance.

Redefining Brain Health

In adults, the absence of disease coupled with strong executive function define brain health as it relates to quality of life. In children, brain health translates more to successful development of attention, on-task behavior, memory, and academic performance in an educational setting. Unfortunately, budget cuts coupled with an increased pressure to perform have led to a downturn in aerobic-related opportunities throughout an average student’s day.

How Did This Pattern Evolve?

Perhaps the “trickle-down effect” can help explain the predicament in which so many of today’s youth find themselves. If we start at the university level and work backward, we clearly observe escalating competition for acceptance to highly rated colleges. This leads back to the need for top scores on high school advanced-placement courses and nationwide entrance exams. The prevalence of private high schools today increases students’ academic pressure as early as the middle-school years. All of these factors contribute to nudging out of opportunities for physical activity, both during the day and after school.

Interestingly, little evidence supports the premise that dedicating more time to daily academic lessons translates into better test scores. In a study of such relationships, data demonstrated a positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance. Teachers who found creative ways to achieve “active academic lessons” or incorporating classroom movement, saw a 6% increase in performance on standardized tests, compared to a control group.

Paving the Way for Classroom Movement

Years ago, recess periods enabled children to run around, climb on playground equipment, and in general clear their heads for the next upcoming lesson. No matter how brief, recess breaks succeeded in maximizing cognitive performance and on-task attention spans. Sadly, so many schools across the country have all but eliminated recess periods, as academic pressures escalate.

An easy way to foster more movement during the school day might involve replacing regular desks with adjustable-height desk stations. One study offered 1st graders the option of remaining in traditional desks or trying out sit-stand stations. When given an opportunity to learn in a more flexible manner, the 1st graders overwhelmingly preferred standing during lessons, thereby expending more energy than those who remained seated throughout the academic part of the day.

Teachers provided with a minimal amount of training can learn ways in which to incorporate physical activity “circuits” as part of their course curriculum. Such breaks function as a “reset button” of sorts, allowing the students to re-direct their attention after expending a bit of energy.  Of course, participation in school sports teams also serves to improve cardiovascular endurance, which almost universally leads to improvements in academic performance.

The Disability Dilemma

Students saddled with either cognitive or physical disabilities may not derive the full benefit that exercise confers upon brain health, since the nature of their learning styles requires more sedentary study. Armed with the knowledge that physical activity enhances memory and learning, scientists and educators have sought ways in which to promote neurogenesis (the cultivation of new neurons) in these children.

The proteins that mediate these brain changes respond well to prolonged bouts of lower-intensity activity. In clinical studies, increases in executive processing related directly to moderate exercise. Students with reading challenges and/or cerebral palsy demonstrated improved cognition when teachers coupled active movement sessions with academic learning. Whether this comes in the form of recess breaks, or the creation of movement circuits within the school day, experts cannot underestimate the benefits of movement sessions to challenged learners.

Classroom Movement, Learning and Stress Release

Regardless of whether one’s “job description” relates to student academics or the business world, stress always seems to accompany it to some degree. We all notice how quickly stress depletes our energy, leading to a reduced ability to focus on tasks. Exercise – recess, sports, circuits or a brisk walk around the employee parking lot – produces the endorphins necessary to reduce stress/tension and stabilize /elevate one’s mood. Even a brief 5 or 10 -minute active interlude can help temper anxiety and sharpen focus.

The Innovative TAKE 10! Program Fosters On-Task Focus

The TAKE 10! initiative came about as a way to evaluate the effectiveness of classroom‐based physical activity; the program’s design integrates movement within a daily academic curriculum. By providing moderate‐to‐vigorous physical activity throughout lesson-teaching, educators hoped to increase student attentiveness, leading to increases in academic prowess.

A sample of three public school classrooms –first, third, and fifth graders — was observed implementing the TAKE 10! program by using digital pedometers. Step counts recorded for each student revealed not only an increase in purposeful movement but also improved on-task performance. Experts thereby concluded that the concept of meshing movement with academics in elementary school classrooms does indeed help students remain focused on learning while improving their activity levels.

Take-Home Messages

Despite the fact that most personal trainers limit their skills to the gym or virtual 1-on-1 training, the concept that increased movement can lead to enhanced brain activity will resonate with just about every client. Whether we train parents, educators or young athletes, we should understand this link so that we may share quality information.

The following comprise the most important take-home messages:

  • Time in the school day dedicated to recess, PE classes, and movement/activity within the classroom show a positive link to academic performance.
  • Evidence suggests that mathematics and reading skills improve the most when coupled with moderate physical activity. These topics depend upon efficient and effective executive function as well as attention span and memory, all of which have been linked to increased physical activity and fitness levels. Children who participate in moderate-intensity physical activity seem to benefit the most.
  • Although presently understudied, physically active lessons offered in the classroom may increase focus and attention span.










Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at trainhard@kronemer.com. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!