Physical exercise enhances learning

An idea that’s picking up the pace

The idea that exercise is good for not just the body but the brain as well seems to be gathering momentum in recent years, certainly in terms of research, and in some ways in the classroom too. This idea definitely has appeal, as physical exercise is something that can be easily implemented in school and has obvious benefits beyond cognitive development; and actually the science looks pretty promising.

Exercise improves cognitive performance in adults…and mice

The first empirical indications that physical exercise might have an impact on how the brain operates emerged in the 1970s and 80s, when researchers turned to exercise as a way to help prevent cognitive decline in old age, and support therapy for mentally ill patients[i]. The effects of exercise on cognition aren’t just seen in humans. Much of the research in this area looks at rodents. In general rodents are useful in psychological research because they’re relatively bright, and can be taught something before being later being examined after death to see the effect of learning on the brain. In this case, early mouse studies found that voluntary exercise on a wheel resulted in better performance on a maze task and in the brain new neurons were found to have grown (neurogenesis) in the hippocampus, which is known to be important for memory and navigation[ii].

Further research with rodents has been extremely productive in this area. It’s been shown that voluntary exercise results in the formation of proteins in the brain associated with memory formation and the development of new blood vessels[iii]. What this amounts to is greater plasticity in the brain, meaning that the brain is more receptive to the influence of the environment. As it happens, changes in the brain as a result of what’s going on in the environment are exactly what schools are trying to achieve!

Research with children looks promising

Although the bulk of human research here is in relation to cognitive decline in older adults, there is some promising work with children. For example, BMI is negatively related to academic performance[iv], and performance in maths and reading is positively associated with aerobic fitness[v], but not with other measures of fitness such as muscle strength and flexibility. In fact, degree of physical activity has been found to relate to performance across: perceptual skills, intelligence quotient, verbal tests, mathematic tests, memory, developmental level, and academic readiness in all ages from 4-18 years, according to a meta-analysis from 2003[vi]. The size of the effect[vii] is small to medium here, so that’s important and definitely noticeable in a group but probably not in an individual.

The benefits of exercise may be most obvious in attention control

The aspect of cognition most regularly shown to be influenced by exercise is ‘executive function’. Adele Diamond is a key researcher in this area and describes executive function as ‘cognitive control functions needed when you have to concentrate and think, when acting on your initial impulse might be ill-advised’[viii], so this includes things like focused attention and switching between tasks. Difficult executive function tasks have been shown to improve in sedentary school children who engage in a programme of exercise, with more improvement the more exercise done[ix]. Children with ADHD also showed an immediate improvement on a focused attention task, plus maths and reading performance, after they had completed 20 minutes of aerobic exercise, compared to 20 minutes of reading[x].

The benefits of exercise on attention have also been indicated through changes in human brain structure and function. For example, after exercise changes have been observed in the anterior cingulate cortex, a primitive brain region deep below the surface, at the front of the brain. This area is involved in staying on task- in focusing attention and ignoring distracting information: fit individuals show better attention control and more efficient use of this brain area[xi].

Is Brain Gym ® effective?

While discussing exercise in general we should mention specific exercise programmes such as Brain Gym®. Brain Gym® teaches a set of specific movements focusing on cross body actions, purportedly with a view to balancing the hemispheres of the brain and increasing blood flow to the head, thereby boosting learning potential. A review from 2010[xii] found no high quality studies showing evidence for effectiveness, with most studies of any kind being published by Brain Gym® themselves. Despite this almost complete lack of evidence, Brain Gym® states that it has instructors in 35 countries around the world, and in a recent survey 88% of UK teachers said they believe that short bouts of co‑ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function[xiii]. So although the evidence base for aerobic exercise in general being beneficial for cognition in children is strong, evidence for specific programmes promoting co-ordination activities is lacking.

Look out for more star jumps in the classroom!

The verdict? This is an area of huge interest for neuroscientists and teachers alike, and looks like a neuro-hit. It seems that aerobic exercise might be an effective and easily implementable strategy for improving cognitive performance in children through boosting brain plasticity and, as pointed out in an excellent recent review, even in the case of studies where no benefit has been demonstrated from physical exercise, there is also no detriment found[xiv].


Further resources

For an excellent review of this area see: Hillman, C. H., Erickson, K. I., & Kramer, A. F. (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects of brain and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 58-65.

The Wellcome Trust’s survey of teachers can be found here.

There’s lots of interesting stuff about Brain Gym, which is a stark example of how neuroscience can be used to promote commercial products- Ben Goldacre has some strong opinions here.



[i] Blomquist, K. B., & Danner, F. (1987). Effects of physical conditioning on information processing efficiency. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 65 (1), 175-186; Powell, R. R. (1974).  Psychological Effects of Exercise Therapy Upon Institutionalized Geriatric Mental Patients. Journal of Gerontology, 29 (2), 157-161. doi: 10.1093/geronj/29.2.157; Valliant, P. M., & Asu, M. E. (1985). Exercise and its effects on cognition and physiology in older adults. Perceptual and motor skills, 61, 1031-1038.

[ii] van Praag, H., Christie, B. R., Sejnowski, T. J., & Gage, F. H. (1999). Running enhances neurogenesis, learning and long-term potentiation in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 96, 13427–13431.

[iii] See van Praag, H. (2008). Neurogenesis and exercise: past and future directions. Neuromolecular Medecine, 10 (2), 128-140. DOI 10.1007/s12017-008-8028-z for a review of work with rodents

[iv] Castelli, D. M., Hillman, C. H., Buck, S. M. & Erwin, H. (2007). Physical fitness and academic achievement in 3rd & 5th Grade Students. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29, 239–252.

[v] California Department of Education. California physical fitness test: Report to the governor and legislature. Sacramento, California. Department of Education Standards and Assessment Division (2001).

[vi] Sibley, B. A. & Etnier, J. L. (2003). The relationship between physical activity and cognition in children: a metaanalysis. Pediatric Exercise Science, 15, 243–256.

[vii] g=0.32 comparing experimental and control groups.

[viii] Diamond,A., & Lee, K. (2011).Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children. Science 333,959-964. doi:10.1126/science.1204529. p.259.

[ix] Davis, C. L., Tomporowski, P. D., McDowell, J. E., Austin, B. P., Miller, P. H., Yanasak, N. E., Allison, J. D., & Naglieri, J. A. (2011). Exercise improves executive function and achievement and alters brain activation in overweight children: A randomised controlled trial. Health Psychology, 30 (1): 91–98. doi:10.1037/a0021766.

[x] Pontifex, M. B., Saliba, B. J., Raine, L. B., Picchietti, D. L., & Hillman, C. H. (2013). Exercise improves behavioural, neurocognitive and scholastic performance in children with ADHD. Journal of Pediatrics, 162 (3): 543–551. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2012.08.036.

[xi] Colcombe, S. J., Kramer, A. F., Erikson, K. I., Scalf, P., McAuley, E. Cohen, N. J., Webb, A., Jerome, G. J., Marquez, D. X., & Elavsky, S. (2004). Cardiovascular fitness, cortical plasticity, and aging. Proceeding from the National Academy of Science, USA, 101, 3316-3321.

[xii] Spaulding, Lucinda S.; Mostert, Mark P.; and Beam, Andrea, “Is Brain Gym an Effective Educational Intervention?” (2010). Faculty Publications and Presentations, paper 148.

[xiii] Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 817-824. doi:10.1038/nrn3817

[xiv] See Hillman, C. H., Erickson, K. I., & Kramer, A. F. (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects of brain and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 58-65.