Could increased physical activity stimulate the brain and improve test scores?

12/18/2013  |  Debby Mitchell, Ed.D.

(This is part one of a three-part series about activating the brain and the body through increasing physical activity in our school systems.)


We have long known that the mind and body work together for the success and achievement of the individual. However, in our schools today, there has been a decrease in physical activity with a raised expectation for higher academic performance on standardized tests. Therefore, our mind and body connections are out of balance.

What is the “cost” of this imbalance to the cognitive, social/emotional, health and well-being of today’s children? One difference is that we have a health crisis with obesity and related health, emotional, and social issues with no statistically significant increase in academic performance in the United States.

What if I told you that by providing more physical activity you might potentially increase test scores? At the very least, increasing physical activity time in the schools would not decrease test scores. Including daily physical activities may have many positive outcomes that help teachers in the classroom with behavior as well as increased concentration.

Decline in Physical Activity/Education in the Schools

A study published recently in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, shows that nearly one in five U.S. four year olds is obese. That means that by the time children begin school, 20 percent are already obese. Unfortunately, many schools are reducing or eliminating physical activity time to spend MORE time on preparing students for state standardized tests. On average, children in elementary school only have physical education two times a week. It may be only one semester for middle school, and for high school, one to two semesters or as an elective.

According to information collected by PHIT America, 41.8 percent of American adults who did not have physical education in school are sedentary, compared to only 16.3 percent of those who had physical education. Inactivity in childhood leads to inactivity in adulthood.

The United States is in a physical inactivity crisis that has contributed to a health crisis. It is well documented that we are the most obese country in the world. For the first time, type two (adult onset) diabetes is being diagnosed in kids, and it now accounts for one of every three newly diagnosed juvenile diabetics. More overweight children are going into hospitals for diabetes (including type two), sleep apnea, asthma and hypertension.

Children born now are predicted to have a shorter lifespan than their parents, making this the first generation to NOT live as long as their parents.

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommends that children receive at least 30 minutes of their physical activity time during the school day. This is half of the 60 minutes recommended by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control). Due to the reduction in quality physical education in the schools, many classroom teachers are now being asked to include physical activity during the school day. These teachers have little training in physical education, are already over-burdened by all the demands on their school day, and are desperately looking for guidance from their administrators on how to make ALL of this happen.

Many educators are so wrapped up with increasing test scores that they may not see the forest for the trees! What if our children are all scholars but have a major lack in quality of life and die prematurely due to illnesses related to obesity or lack of physical activity? The last 20 years of their lives they may be lethargic, on massive amounts of medications, missing work, and requiring frequent stays in the hospital. Not only does this decrease quality of life, but obesity and its related illnesses can also cause premature death. Statistically, obesity shortens the lifespan by nine years.

Why is Physical Activity a Solution?

According to Dr. John Ratey (Harvard Medical School), to improve our brains we have to move our bodies. Exercise or physical movement generates a greater number of connections between neurons. He calls physical activity the “miracle-gro” (or fertilizer) for the brain. The exercise itself doesn’t make you smarter, but it puts the brain of the learners in the optimal position to learn.

Developmental molecular biologist, Dr. John Medina, has 12 rules in his book and on his website, Brain Rules. Rule #1 is that exercise boosts brain power ( He states that aerobic exercise improves executive functions and memory. There are two reasons that exercise improves cognition. One is that there is increased oxygen flow to the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. The second reason is that exercise increases neuron creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress. What makes us move also makes us think. While active, there are more neurons firing and more associations made in the brain. These connections make it easier for children of all ages to learn.

Researchers agree that, genetically, the human body is meant to move. What makes us move also makes us think. While active, there are more neurons firing and more associations made in the brain. These connections make it easier for children of all ages to learn.

NASPE (National Association of Sport and Physical Education) reported information from the CDC who reviewed 50 studies about school-based physical education and its effect on academic performance. The CDC reviewed over 250 associations between physical activity and academic performance. More than half of all associations were determined to be positive.

The CDC summary found that there is substantial evidence that suggests that physical activity can be associated with improved academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores. They also found that increasing or maintaining time dedicated to physical education can help — and does not adversely affect — academic performance. ( Read the full report:

Why do we need to exercise?

One of the reasons we should exercise is for brain health!!

  • Exercise benefits the brain even before it benefits the body.
  • The brain relies on the body to get its needed fuel—oxygen and glucose—to the brain.
  • The healthier and more physically fit the body is, the more efficiently the brain functions.

How Exercise Benefits the Brain:

  • Exercise creates the optimal environment for neural plasticity, the ability of the brain to change.
  • Research on the brain reveals how exercise can aid in learning and cognition:

– Improved Brain Function (Medina 2008)
– Enhanced Cognition (Etnier 1997)
– Improved Memory (Spark by Dr. John Ratey 2008)|
– Reduced Stress (Spark by Dr. John Ratey 2008)
– Balanced Mood and Behavior (Spark by Dr. John Ratey 2008)
– Improved Social Skills and Behavior (Spark by Dr. John Ratey 2008)
– Improved Academic Performance (Dwyer et al. 2001)


The lack of physical activity with the increase in obesity plus the need to improve test scores equals the need to increase physical activity in our schools.

There is a lack of physical activity with an overemphasis on standardized testing in U.S. schools today. The reduction (and in some cases, elimination) of physical education in our schools has not only contributed to obesity and related diseases, but has adversely affected our children’s brain health. By increasing physical activity in our schools, we can combat obesity, regain student concentration, and possibly even increase academic success.

Debby Mitchell, Ed.D. is president of Geomotion Group Inc. For more information, visit
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