Assessment, Opinion, Teaching

“Train Your Brain”

The effect of physical activity on brain health and development

Written by Katie Gunnell, Veronica Poitras, and Mark Tremblay

Decades of research have shown that children who are physically active have a lower risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, depression, and obesity. Researchers have also recently uncovered the beneficial effects of physical activity for healthy brain development, which can lead to improved learning and academic outcomes. Children who are active (e.g., as little as a 20 minute walk) have more active brains,[1] better standardized test scores,[2] and improved attention in the classroom.[1] Moreover, researchers are beginning to recognize that excessive sedentary behaviours (waking activities that are characterized by low energy expenditure – e.g., sitting, watching TV, or “screen time”) negatively influence brain health and may even counteract the benefits of activity.[3]  Therefore, obtaining sufficient physical activity and limiting sedentary time are both important for healthy brain development.

How does it work?

In a recent review, Voss and colleagues[3] outline the benefits of increased physical activity and reduced sedentary time on brain health and how they work through at least three levels.

First, at the cellular level, physical activity is associated with the development of new blood vessels (which supply important nutrients and oxygen) and neurons (which transmit nerve impulses) in the brain. Physical activity is also associated with an increase in growth factors in the brain, which help with the development, maintenance, and plasticity (ability to change and adapt) of the nervous system.[3]

Second, at the system level, activity helps regulate stress responses (that are mediated in part by the brain). Physical activity also increases the size (volume) of parts of the brain that are important for learning and memory, and activates parts of the brain that are activated during cognitive activities such as math and reading.[3] Therefore, being active is like “training your brain” – not to say students can go for a walk instead of doing math homework, but being active might make that homework easier! 

Finally, these cellular and system-level effects are expressed at the behavioural level. Physical activity is associated with improvements in IQ, academic achievement, executive function (including mentally holding and manipulating information, focusing, and multitasking), and attention, as well as reductions in depression, anxiety, and psychological distress. Being active can also reduce the risk of dementia later in life. [3]

Overall, being physically active and reducing sedentary time conveys a host of benefits, effectively improving healthy brain development to produce optimal learning conditions.

What types of activity are important for healthy development?

Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) is the benchmark for conveying health benefits. MVPA is any physical activity that increases heart rate, breathing and perspiration. According to current guidelines developed through the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology, children aged 5-17 years should get at least 60 minutes of MVPA every day to achieve health benefits – and more is better. Children should get at least 3 days per week of vigorous activity (e.g. causes sweating and heavy breathing) and muscle and bone strengthening exercises (e.g. lifting heavy objects, jumping). Sedentary behaviour guidelines stipulate that children should limit sedentary time and specifically limit recreational screen use to no more than 2 hours per day.  These guidelines were developed using the best available research evidence concerning the impact of physical activity and sedentary behaviour on important health outcomes, including cognition and academic achievement.[4],[5]

Other types of physical activities that children can engage in include active play (e.g., climbing trees, swinging from monkey bars) and active transportation (e.g., biking to school). In a recent position statement released by ParticipACTION, researchers from the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group (HALO) advocate for a return to self-directed outdoor play. Children who engage in play move more, sit less, play longer, have better peer relationships, are more resilient, and can better regulate their behaviours[6].[7] – all factors that translate into creating optimal learning environments. Together, active play and active transportation can help children increase overall activity levels.

Even as little as 45 minutes of MVPA per week appears to benefit cognition, academic achievement, behaviour, and psychosocial functioning.[8]  It doesn’t take much activity to achieve some benefits, but more activity is better!

Sounds good, but what’s the problem?

ParticipACTION’s[9] Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth shows that only 9% of Canadian children meet current physical activity guidelines and only 24% of children meet sedentary behaviour guidelines, earning a dismal “D-“ grade in both of these categories. This means that most Canadian children are missing out on the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle.

How can activity be increased throughout the day and in the classroom?

With the current structure of a typical classroom and demands to meet curriculum requirements, it’s hard to imagine how educators can increase activity. However, 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. Achieving 60 minutes of MVPA can be facilitated through daily physical education classes. Other types of movement can be incorporated into the classroom to break up long periods of sitting. Educators can take students on educational nature walks or encourage walking meetings for group work. Students can be encouraged to stand along the edges of the classroom when a lesson is being delivered, or take turns standing at an elevated desk. If feasible, a quiet stationary bicycle can be placed in the back of the classroom and children can take turns quietly cycling during lessons. Finally, educators can get the students involved and ask them how they’d like to incorporate activity into the class.

During recess, children should be allowed to engage in self-directed play. Restrictions on the types of play should be limited and reasonable, and children should be encouraged to be creative, run, explore, and play games with balls – even if it comes with the small risk of scraped knees.

Bottom Line

Any activity is better than no activity when it comes to healthy development and enhancing learning outcomes. Educators can incorporate activity and reduce sitting time in their classrooms and doing so may help students’ brain development and enhance learning. In effect, adding activity can help students “train their brains”! In our modern world where sedentary behaviour is omnipresent, the historical mantra of “sit still” needs to be replaced with deliberate attempts to re-engineer our lifestyles to incorporate more movement – the health of our bodies and brains depends on it!





  1. Hillman CH, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Castelli, DM, Hall EE, Kramer AF. (2009). The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience. 2009;159(3):1044-1054.
  2. Donnelly JE, Lambourne K. Classroom-based physical activity, cognition, and academic achievement. Prev Med, 2011;52,:S36-S42.
  3. Voss MW, Carr LJ, Clark R, Weng T. (2014). Revenge of the “sit” II: does lifestyle impact neuronal and cognitive health through distinct mechanisms associated with sedentary behavior and physical activity? Mental Health and Physical Activity, 2014;7(1): 9-24.
  4. Tremblay MS, Warburton DER, Janssen I, et al. New Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines.Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2011;36(1):36-46. doi:10.1139/H11-009.
  5. Tremblay MS, LeBlanc AG, Kho ME, et al. Systematic review of sedentary behaviour and health indicators in school-aged children and youth. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act, 2011;8(1): 98.
  6. Tremblay MS, Gray C, Babcock S, et al. Position statement on active outdoor play. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 2015;12(6): 6475-6505.
  7. Gray C. Gibbons R. Larouche R. et al. What is the relationship between outdoor time and physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and physical fitness in children? A systematic review. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 2015;12:6455-6474.
  8. Lees C, Hopkins J. Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition, academic achievement, and psychosocial function in children: A systematic review of randomized control trials. Prev Chronic Dis, 2013;10:E174. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd10.130010
  9. ParticipACTION. The Biggest Risk is Keeping Kids Indoors. The 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto: ParticipACTION; 2015.

Meet the Expert(s)

katie gunnell and veronica poitras and m tremblay

Mark S. Tremblay

Katie E. Gunnell, PhD, Veronica J. Poitras, PhD, and Mark S. Tremblay, PhD are researchers with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. http://www.cheori.org

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