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Benefits of an Active Classroom - September 2009

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Benefits of an Active Classroom

By: Margaret Rice PT

Most people are already aware of the physical benefits of exercise such as strengthening of the heart and lungs, preventing weight gain, healthy bones, good posture and more. Although, many are not aware of the potential brain boosting benefits of physical activity with regards to school performance. Teachers, administrators and other school staff can be wary about losing instructional time to take activity breaks. The statistics are showing that children are spending more time in a sedentary mode at school and at home. For example, recent statistics show that preschoolers spend their time performing sedentary activities 89% of the day, 8% of the day performing light physical activity and only 3% of the day doing moderately vigorous physical activity 1. As school based therapists, we can educate school staff by providing them with evidence based research to back up our suggestions to increase physical activity time during the school day. To convince school staff to infuse the day with more physical activity time, try informing staff on the additional benefits such as cognition, memory, concentration, moods, behaviors and obesity.

Physical Activity and Cognition
One of the greatest brain gains of exercise is the ability for physical activity to improve actual brain function helping nerve cells to multiply, creating more connections for learning (2,3). Research has shown that an increase in physical activity has a significant positive effect on cognition especially for early elementary and middle school students 4 . Students who exhibit fitness achievement have increased odds of passing state English and math tests 5. As an added bonus, being physically fit as a child may make you smarter for longer as you grow old 6.

Movement and Memory Formation
The brain’s short and long term memory may improve by using more than one mode of information. For example, by adding a movement component to a lesson you are allowing the brain to process the information via additional pathways instead of the traditional verbal or visual pathways used in school lessons. In other words, motor memory can compliment the initial verbal or visual memories.

Activity and Concentration
Teachers know all too well how much effort is spent on trying to get and maintain students’ attention. Teachers try frequent questioning, moving about the room, changing tone of voice and many more techniques. An alternative method for teachers to increase attention, concentration and on task behavior may be to incorporate bouts of physical activity throughout the school day. Research has shown that some children who participated in an in-class physical activity program improved their on task behaviors by 20 percent 7 . Additional research regarding physical activity and school performance revealed that physical activity may improve concentration 8.

Physical Activity and Mood
While physically active students are increasing brain connections and improving attention, they are also getting in the mood to learn. The psychological payback of exercise can be a great benefit to school children. In as little as 15 minutes of exercise, young children can elevate their mood 9. Need a boost of creativity for music or art class? Research has indicated that separate of mood, creativity can be enhanced following exercise sessions 10. School staff focus on teaching children to be successful and proud of their achievements with awards, stickers and ceremonies. You can add physical activity to the list of reasons of why children may feel successful and exhibit higher self esteem 11.

Recess and Behaviors
Classrooms frequently have behavioral issues that must be addressed throughout the day. Recently, there is evidence that 8-9 year old children who receive at least 15 minutes of daily recess had better teacher's rating scores of classroom behavior 12.

Combating Obesity
Increasing energy output may help to decrease the alarming rise in obesity in American children. Being obese can effect school performance, exhibited by higher absenteeism rates than their normal weight peers 13. Not only does increasing physical activity increase energy output in obese children, it also appears to improve executive function abilities (decision making abilities) and math abilities 14.

Will Learning Suffer?
School administrators and teachers many be concerned that devoting more class time to movement activities may inversely effect academic grades. In other words, more movement time whether it be in class, physical education time or recess may cause student’s grades to decline. Research has shown that when additional time (14-26% of school day) is devoted to physical activity, it does not interfere with learning and in some instances even has accelerated learning 15.

Suggestions for increasing physical activity during the school day
The are many ways to incorporate more physical activity and movement breaks into a school day. One of the easiest ways to increase physical activity time is to add physical education classes and recess. Although this can be the most difficult to accomplish within a school day since so much time is devoted to structured learning. If additional physical education and recess time is not available, work on incorporating physical movement throughout the school day. During transitions from one subject matter to another, perform short bouts of exercises such as jumping in place, dancing to music or jumping jacks. Prior to writing tasks, try waking up the upper extremities with wall or seat push ups. Take frequent stretching breaks during academic tasks that require long periods of sitting. During question and answer periods, if a student gets the answer correct the class can stand up and clap overhead and if the answer is incorrect the children can squat down on the floor.

Assist teachers in developing multi-sensory lessons that incorporate movement with academics. Not only will the multi-sensory activities increase movement time but it may assist kinesthetic learners to improve academically.

If the amount of physical activity time is still limited during the school day try after school. Encourage the school to start informal, extracurricular activities that promote physical activity such as soccer, dance, basketball or aerobic classes.

By teaming up with members of the school and community, physical and occupational therapists can help to make active changes regarding children’s patterns of physical fitness and health.


  1. Brown, W. , Pfeiffer, K., McIver, K. Dowda M., Addy, C., Pate, R. Social and Environmental Factors Associated With Preschoolers' Nonsedentary Physical Activity Child Development 80: 1 (45-58) 2009.
  2. Cotman, C., Engesser-Cesar, C. (2002) Exercise enhances and protects brain function. Exerc Sport Sci Rev 30(2): 75-9.
  3. Ferris, L., Williams, J., and Shen, C. (2007) The effect of acute exercise on serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels and cognitive function. Med Sci Sports Exerc 39 (4): 728-734.
  4. Sibley, B, Etnier, J (2002) The Effects of Physical Activity on Cognition in Children: A Meta Anaylsis Med Sci Sports Exer 4(5)s214
  5. Chomitz, V., Slining, M., McGowan, R., Mitchell, S., Dawson, G., Hacker, K. Is There a Relationship Between Physical Fitness and Academic Achievement? Positive Results From Public School Children in the Northeastern United States Journal of School Health: 79 (1) 30-37 2009.
  6. Deary, I., Whalley, L., Batty, et al Physical fitness and lifetime cognitive change. Neurology 2006 67: 1195-1200
  7. Mahar, M., Murphy, S, Rowe, D, et al. (2006) Effects of a classroom-based program on physical activity and on-task behavior. Med Sci Sports Exer 38(12): 2086-94.
  8. Taras, H. (2005) Physical Activity and Student Performance at School. Journal of School Health 75(6):214-8.

    Williamson, D., Dewey, A., Steingberg, H. (2001) Mood change through physical exercise in nine- to ten-year-old children. Percept Mot Skills 93 (1): 311-316.
  9. Steinberg, H., Sykes, E., Moss, T. et al. (1997) Exercise enhances creativity independently of mood. Br J Sports Med 31: 240-245
  10. Tremblay, M., Inman J., Willms, D (2000) The Relationship Between Physical Activity, Self Esteem and Academic Acheivement in 12 Year old Children. Pediatric Exercise Science 12: 312-323.
  11. Barros, Romina M., Silver, Ellen J., Stein, Ruth E. K. School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior Pediatrics 2009 123: 431-436
  12. Geier, A, Foster, G., Womble, L et al (2007) The relationship between relative weight and school attendance among elementary schoolchildren. Obesity 15(8): 2157-61.
  13. Baker, T. Exercise improves thinking, reduces diabetes risk in overweight children.
  14. Shepard, RJ (1997) Curricular Physical Activity and Academic Performance. Pediatric Exercise Science 9(2):113-126.

This Month's Featured Author: Margaret Rice PT owner of Your Therapy Souce

Special Thanks to Margaret Rice, PT, and Your Therapy Source for providing an article for our website.

Margaret Rice PT, has authored two books on pediatric group therapy, 25 Instant Sensory Motor Group Activities and Sensory Motor Group Activities from A to Z

Please support our contributing authors and visit Your Therapy Source, Inc.. Your online resource for special needs and pediatric therapy publications. Visit for free downloads, newsletter and to view a full list of titles.

She can also be reached by email at:

Tags: September 2009 Newsletter PT OT SLP Special Education School Based PT School Based OT School Based Speech Article