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Physical activity improves children's cognitive outcomes

Birkbeck researchers combined data from 92 intervention studies, ranging from short bursts of physical activity mixed within lessons, to team sports and dance, in order to study their impact on cognitive and academic outcomes.

Children playing football

Research by Birkbeck analysing the impact of physical activity on children’s cognitive and academic outcomes has found that physical activity improves on-task behaviour, creativity, problem solving and memory in typically developing primary school aged children. 

The research combined and analysed results from 92 intervention studies published between 2000 to 2022. Data from approximately 25,000 children aged 5 to 12 years old, from 21 countries, was analysed.  

Fotini Vasilopoulos, PhD student at Birkbeck, who led the study, commented: “Movement is an intrinsic part of infants and children’s brain and cognitive development, as it allows exploration and interactions with the environment. Games children engage in during physical activity, which can include learning and following new sets of rules, may foster problem solving skills. Regular physical activity fulfils a need to move in young children, and so when they have moved enough, they may be better prepared to stay on task.  

“We found that physical activity improves on-task behaviour, creativity, problem solving and working memory (how much information children can keep in mind). While physical activity interventions as a whole did not benefit academic outcomes, certain types of activity were found to lead to improvements in mathematics and language outcomes. 

“Our results support the argument that sufficient time for physical education should be provided in school, as physical activity leads not only to health-related benefits, but also has a range of beneficial effects on cognition and academic achievement. Importantly, however, schools may want to tailor the type of physical activity carried out to improve specific outcomes.” 

This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and supervised by Professor Iroise Dumontheil within the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development and Centre for Educational Neuroscience.  

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