Assessment, Opinion

How physical activity affects a child’s academics

The likelihood of improving academic achievement by sneaking in some more activity far exceeds the risk of it doing any harm

It’s becoming common knowledge that children in Canada and around the world aren’t getting enough physical activity. You may have even heard the most recent statistic from the ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth revealing that only 9% of kids aged 5-17 years old are meeting the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity per day.[1] We have a problem to address, but there are many reasons this issue needs attention.

In particular, when we talk about physical activity we immediately think of increased fitness and forget about the other benefits it brings. This makes sense because when we think of the physical activity superstars our children idolize, it’s easy to default to Jose Bautista and overlook Einstein.

But, as mentioned by Drs. Gunnell, Poitras, and Tremblay earlier in this series, physical activity is linked to improvements in almost every measure of intelligence, and psychosocial health.[2] Active children have higher self-esteem, improved social skills, fewer depressive symptoms, higher confidence and feelings of competence. They demonstrate better self-control, cooperation, sportsmanship and teamwork. Also, as Dr. Gunnell points out in her post, “evidence shows that adding activity into the classroom can have immediate and long-term benefits and there is little-to-no evidence of any negative impact on learning.”

A review on physical activity and academic achievement by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. showed that there are only a minuscule number of studies (in the realm of 1.5% of the papers they included) that report a negative association with academic achievement. While the rest of studies report either null findings or a positive association.[3] This includes studies looking at school-based education on physical activity, recess, classroom physical activity, and extra-curricular programs. So it’s pretty safe to say that the likelihood of improving academic achievement by sneaking in some more activity far exceeds the risk of it doing any harm.

Convinced yet? Good. There are so many ways you can take action by sneaking in a few extra minutes of heart pumping activity into a child’s school day. Try some of the ideas below:

  • At ParticipACTION we talk about shifting social norms so that active choice become the default choice and we’re not left tied to our desks all day. It’s the same at school. Children are probably not getting enough physical activity in PE class alone, so they need opportunities to sit less and move more throughout the day.
  • If you’re an educator with access to financial support for physical activity, maybe you can invest in some “best-case scenarios interventions” like standing desks, new sports equipment, or active field trips.
  • Don’t have a huge budget? Think small. Get the conversation started around physical activity and ask kids how they would like to get active at school. What makes them excited when they go to physical education (PE) class and what are they struggling with? Have they seen something on TV that they want to try? Start there.
  • Invite students to stand as they do their work, or take a science class outside to look at the clouds. I love walking or standing meetings! Or how about starting a rally for a local sports team and get them revved up to try out a sport themselves. I think we can all reminisce on how fun things were when we worked on more ‘hands-on’ projects.
  • ParticipACTION also has plenty great resources that can help promote active play at school and at home.
  • Too generic? How about introducing a “non-traditional” sport like Quidditch or Frisbee-golf to your school. Non-traditional sports are making a comeback in Canada with the majority of Canadians reporting wanting to try something new.
  • OPHEA also has many great resources for the classroom including these activity cards that we use at ParticipACTION to integrate 2 minute “fit-breaks” into the day.

The activities above are all unique and will leave you and Canada’s kids huffing and puffing through the school day. And your physical health AND mental health will be better off for it!  






1. ParticipACTION. The Biggest Risk Is Keeping Our Kids Indoors. The 2015 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto, Ontario; 2015.

2. Voss MW, Carr LJ, Clark R, Weng T. Revenge of the “sit” II: Does lifestyle impact neuronal and cognitive health through distinct mechanisms associated with sedentary behavior and physical activity? Ment Health Phys Act. 2014;7(1):9-24. doi:10.1016/j.mhpa.2014.01.001.

3. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The Association between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance. U.S.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2010.

Meet the Expert(s)

Allana LeBlanc

Allana LeBlanc

Allana LeBlanc has a PhD in population health from the University of Ottawa, a master’s at Queen’s University in kinesiology and epidemiology, and graduated from Acadia University with a double major in biology and kinesiology. She is also a Certified Exercise Physiologist with the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, a Clinical Exercise Specialist with the American College of Sports Medicine and a Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist with the American College of Sports Medicine/National Physical Activity Society. @AllanaLeBlanc

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