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In this lesson we discuss physical activity and its relationship to both learning and performance.

We also describe how the brain actually benefits from exercise, and we review several activities to incorporate fitness into the classroom setting.

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Physical Activity and Performance

Back in the days before the exercise boon of the 1980’s, there was a sometimes unfair stereotype of many athletes being muscular but perhaps not too intelligent. However, today many exercise physiologists and sports scientists believe being physically active can actually improve brain power. Of course, the truth is it really does vary from individual to individual. Some of the greatest geniuses in history rarely worked out a day in their life, while some students that have failed entire class years played sports almost every day of their lives. Thomas Edison himself was famous for saying he did not care to participate in sports with his friends, although he did stand during many of his long 18-hour workdays.

Nevertheless, there is a growing body of research that indicates that the benefits of physical activity for both learning and performance outweigh the downsides.Some of the touted benefits of an active student include:

  • Better academic performance than sedentary students
  • Better on-task focus and concentration
  • Better overall school performance than sedentary students
  • Better test scores

Classroom Activities

Students spend many hours per day at school, and nowadays many schools are cutting back on or even eliminating physical education programs. Childhood obesity is considered an epidemic and some estimates suggest even ten percent of two-year-olds are already overweight. However, a teacher can add exercises and stretches throughout the day to link fitness to learning.

Here are some ideas:1) The Secret PasswordEach day the students learn a new secret password that is fitness related. For example, it could be to do 10 sit-ups or to jog in place for 15 seconds. Predetermine the times when the password applies such as bathroom breaks, entering and exiting the classroom, water breaks, before and after receiving handouts, and before and after a subject change.2) Jumping JacksThese have been used by gym coaches for decades because they can be done in tight spaces and they produce quick results. Incorporate them into the classroom by having students do them before or after answering a question.

Jumping jacks are a quick and easy way to exercise

3) Acting out storiesWho does not like playing games such as Charades and Pictionary? Similar games can easily be incorporated into a classroom setting, especially for classes involving history and literature.4) Wii GamesThese games offer almost an almost endless variety of movement challenges. If the cost is prohibitive perhaps a parent can donate the console and some games. There are also websites such as DonorChoose that help fund classroom activities. Wii Fit and Wii Sport are especially suited for classroom activity.

5) Cultural and Historical Movement ExercisesAlmost every culture and country has its own history of dance and related folklore. This also includes games, sports, and daily rituals and activities. Why just stand up at the chalkboard and lecture when you can integrate student activity right into the lesson? For example, perhaps the instructor is giving a lesson on the history of Hawaii before and after it became a state in 1959. The instructor could have the students stand up and all do the hula dance together.

The Hawaiian hula is a great dance for both exercise and learning another culture

6) Physical Activity HomeworkBefore computers and video games came along students went home from school and often played outside until the street lights came on. Today one can often go outside after school for over an hour and not see one child outside playing, even on gorgeous sunny days.

Assign students a project in which they must track their:

  • Computer time
  • Television time
  • Physical activity time

After one week have the students add up the three numbers and compare them. Then challenge the students to increase their physical activity time each week.7) SMART boards are pricey, but if the instructor’s school system can purchase one they provide a multitude of opportunities to blend fitness and learning. Have the student throw a harmless bean bag at the screen marker to go to the next question. This gets the student up and out of the desk as well.8) Daily Rule-This is similar to the secret password concept.

Each day there is a new rule the students must follow. For example, after answering a math times table question correctly the student must stand up and do a designated stretch.


Dominic O’Brien touts himself as the eight times World Memory Champion and is known for incredible feats, such as memorizing several decks of cards after just glancing at each card one time.

He is a big believer in exercising his body because he believes it gives him a boost of oxygen to his brain. Many exercise physiologists believe that physical activity can improve:

  • Executive function- cognitive control and self-regulatory actions
  • Psychomotor speeds- movements connected to mental processes
  • Verbal memory- memory involving language and words

There have been many more studies that have also come to the conclusion that there is a direct correlation between physical activity and a student’s learning and performance.

  • Helps with ADHD
  • Organizing
  • Planning
  • Standardized testing
  • Strategizing

Lesson Summary

In this lesson we reviewed ways to link physical activity to both learning and performance. We discussed many of the benefits of being active such as improved test scores, stronger concentration, better academic performance, and superior overall school performance. We discussed several classroom activities that the instructor can utilize to meld classroom time together with exercise, including jumping jacks and acting out stories. Finally, we presented evidence which showed the effects physical activity can have on memory and the ability to focus.

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