Physical Activity, Fitness, Cognitive Function, and Academic Achievement in Children: A Systematic Review
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Physical Activity, Fitness, Cognitive Function, and Academic Achievement in Children: A Systematic Review

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  • English

  • Details:

    • Alternative Title:
      Med Sci Sports Exerc
    • Description:

      The relation among physical activity (PA), fitness, cognitive function, and academic achievement in children is receiving considerable attention. The utility of PA to improve cognition and academic achievement is promising but uncertain; thus, this position stand will provide clarity from the available science.


      To answer the following questions: (1) among children aged 5-13, do PA and physical fitness influence cognition, learning, brain structure, and brain function? (2) among children aged 5-13, do PA, physical education, and sports programs influence standardized achievement test performance and concentration/attention?

      Study Eligibility Criteria

      Primary source articles published in English in peer-reviewed journals. Articles that presented data on, PA, fitness or physical education (PE)/sport participation and cognition, learning, brain function/structure, academic achievement, or concentration/attention were included.

      Data Sources

      Two separate searches were performed to identify studies that focused on (1) cognition, learning, brain structure, and brain function; and (2) standardized achievement test performance and concentration/attention. PubMed, ERIC, PsychInfo, SportDiscus, Scopus, Web of Science, Academic Search Premier, and Embase were searched (January 1990- September 2014) for studies that met inclusion criteria. Sixty-four met inclusion criteria for the first search (cognition/learning/brain) and 73 studies met inclusion criteria for the second search (academic achievement/concentration).

      Study appraisal and synthesis methods

      Articles were grouped by study design as cross-sectional, longitudinal, acute, or intervention trials. Considerable heterogeneity existed for several important study parameters, therefore results were synthesized and presented by study design.


      A majority of the research supports the view that physical fitness, single bouts of PA, and PA interventions benefit children's cognitive functioning. Limited evidence was available concerning the effects of PA on learning, with only one cross-sectional study meeting the inclusion criteria. Evidence indicates that PA has a relation to areas of the brain that support complex cognitive processes during laboratory tasks. While favorable results have been obtained from cross-sectional and longitudinal studies related to academic achievement, the results obtained from controlled experiments evaluating the benefits of PA on academic performance are mixed and additional, well-designed studies are needed.


      Limitations in evidence meeting inclusion criteria for this review include a lack of randomized controlled trials, limited studies that are adequately powered, lack of information on participant characteristics, failure to blind for outcome measures, proximity of PA to measurement outcomes, and lack of accountability for known confounders. Therefore, many studies were ranked as high risk for bias due to multiple design limitations.


      The present systematic review found evidence to suggest that there are positive associations among PA, fitness, cognition, and academic achievement. However, the findings are inconsistent and the effects of numerous elements of PA on cognition remain to be explored, such as type, amount, frequency, and timing. Many questions remain regarding how to best incorporate PA within schools, such as activity breaks versus active lessons in relation to improved academic achievement. Regardless, the literature suggests no indication that increases in PA negatively affect cognition or academic achievement and PA is important for growth and development and general health. Based on the evidence available, the authors concluded that PA has a positive influence on cognition as well as brain structure and function; however, more research is necessary to determine mechanisms and long-term impact as well as strategies to translate laboratory findings to the school environment. Therefore the Evidence Category rating is B. The literature suggests that PA and PE have a neutral effect on academic achievement. Thus, due to the limitations in the literature and the current information available, the Evidence Category rating for academic achievement is C.

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