Physical activity, fitness, cognitive function, and academic achievement in children: A systematic review

Joseph E. Donnelly, Charles H. Hillman, Darla Castelli, Jennifer L. Etnier, Sarah Lee, Phillip Tomporowski, Kate Lambourne, Amanda N. Szabo-Reed

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


SUMMARY Background The relationship 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. Objective The purpose of this study was to answer the following questions: 1) among children age 5-13 yr, do PA and physical fitness influence cognition, learning, brain structure, and brain function? 2) Among children age 5-13 yr, do PA, physical education (PE), and sports programs influence standardized achievement test performance and concentration/attention? Study Eligibility Criteria This study used primary source articles published in English in peer-reviewed journals. Articles that presented data on, PA, fitness, or 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 studies 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. Results 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 relationship to areas of the brain that support complex cognitive processes during laboratory tasks. Although 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 Limitations in evidence meeting inclusion criteria for this review include 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 because of multiple design limitations. Conclusions 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. On the basis of 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 effect 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, because of the limitations in the literature and the current information available, the evidence category rating for academic achievement is C.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1197-1222
Number of pages26
JournalMedicine and Science in Sports and Exercise
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016



ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


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