Sunday, March 30, 2014

Physically Active Learning

I have been taking some education courses lately.  This was a report I did for one of them that I thought you might find interesting.

Physically Active Learning: A practical solution for increased learning?

I first became interested in physically active learning due to my interaction with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I have a child with ADHD and know how hard it is for her to sit still and accomplish a task. She has to get up, take breaks, and move around in order to concentrate on an academic task. Yet in schools I observed the common practice of making a child sit out of recess if they had not finished some instructional work. On an intuitive level this seemed counterproductive and I wanted to explore whether there was some science that connected exercise with learning. As I dug into the research I came across the idea of physically active learning in schools.
Physically active learning came into vogue in the early 2010s1,2, partly as a reaction to new research linking exercise and brain function and partly as a reaction to increased concerns over obesity and inactivity. Physically active learning is the idea that moderate physical activity, either before or during learning sessions, increases memory and executive brain functions1,2. Physically active learning sounds wonderful, but is it really necessary and/or practical for schools today?
Physically active learning is not the kinesthetic learning that is presently being used in schools. Though physically active learning and kinesthetic learning do overlap to some degree, they are different in philosophy and practice. Kinesthetic learning3,4 is a specific learning style that may help certain individuals to increase their ability to retain information. It relies on some form of psychomotor activity, whether as small as moving blocks at a desk or as large as dancing around a classroom, that is tied to the subject being taught. In contrast physically active learning applies more broadly to the population as a whole. All individuals experience a change in brain function when they exercise5,6. In addition the physical activity associated with physically active learning is always whole body exercise, not small fine motor skills activities. And finally the physical activity in physically active learning is not necessarily associated with the subject being taught.
It has long been known that there is a link between physical activity or fitness levels on both brain structure and brain function7. For example, two studies that looked at kids 9-10 yrs of age found that those children who were more fit had larger basal gangli and hippocampi, areas of the brain that control attention and memory8. Exercise has also been shown to increase the production of neurotropic factors, key elements to establishing new memories14,15. Furthermore studies have found a correlation between fitness and academic achievement9,10. Even when academic instructional time is decreased to provide for more physical activity such as PE, academic test scores do not go down1, 9.
However despite these results, there has been a steady decrease in movement and PE in schools as they attempt to keep up with mandates such as No child left behind. A 2013 bulletin from the Institute of Medicine reports that half the administrators of schools decreased PE time since 200111. This is despite the fact that rates of obesity in US children have doubled in the past 30 years, which brings along a whole host of problems related to health and self image12. Even at schools that still have PE, it is not uncommon for children to be disciplined for classroom infractions by being forced to sit out of PE or recess. This is especially common for children who are naturally active, like ADHD children, who create frequent disruptions in the classroom. In the belief that they need to make children concentrate harder on the material at their desks in order to raise test scores, educators may actually be holding back children from reaching their optimal performance when it comes to academic progress. This is why physically active learning techniques are so important.
Physically active learning links small amounts of moderate exercise with direct changes in the brain, and these changes are thought to lead to an increase in the ability of an individual to learn. A typical physically active learning study will have children or adults exercising for 20 minutes or resting for 20 minutes, followed by a study time or a testing time. These studies have shown that moderate exercise, such as walking or cycling for 15-30 minutes, increases memory, attention, and problem-solving in children13. One study looked at 20 minutes of stationary biking during a learning session of foreign words14. There was a significant increase in retention for those who participated in exercise compared to those who didn't. But what is even more exciting was that this improvement was most enhanced for those people who were “low performers”, ie those who had the most trouble remembering the words. In a study of children in Northeast Kansas public schools 16, teachers were taught how to implement physically active learning (called PAAC) and achieved at least 40 hrs per month of physical activity within the class. This led to decreased BMI among the students and increased reading, math, and spelling test scores. Other reports of the benefit of physically active learning are more anecdotal. In a Connecticut school kids crab-walk from place to place and report better attitudes and retention17. A Portland High School teacher uses musical chairs in her classroom, which keeps the students more engaged and focused17. From all of these studies it is evident that physically active learning exercise is beneficial to students.
In today's climate of shrinking PE time, more sedimentary lifestyles, ADHD and increasing rates of obesity, physically active learning is worth considering for the classroom. Unfortunately few teachers implement physically active learning in their classrooms. Some ways to incorporate physically active learning into a classroom include:
  • short breaks of jumping jacks
  • switching desks in the middle of instruction
  • running team relay races where words must be put in the correct place on a diagram/chart in order for the racer to go back to their team
  • playing musical chairs with true/false statements. When a false statement is said, the students scramble for the chairs.
  • dances that incorporate lessons (see crystal structure dance and mitosis dance)
  • disciplining kids by making them walk/run a track during PE or recess, rather than sitting still
Furthermore there are some webpages that have other ideas of physically active learning techniques:

  1. Study: Physical activity can boost student performance, downloaded March 2014 from
  2. Learning Styles, downloaded March 2014 from ;
  3. The influence of exercise on cognitive abilities., Gomez-Pinilla F1, Hillman C. , Compr Physiol. 2013 Jan;3(1):403-28. doi: 10.1002/cphy.c110063.
  4. Study Finds Aerobic Exercise Improves Memory, Brain Function and Physical Fitness , downloaded March 2014 from
  5. The Effects of Aerobic Activity on Brain Structure, Adam G. Thomas,1,2,* Andrea Dennis,2 Peter A. Bandettini,1,3 and Heidi Johansen-Berg2, Front Psychol. 2012; 3: 86.
  6. Phys Ed: Can exercise make kids smarter? By Gretchen Reynolds downloaded March 2014 from
  7. Brain boost: Sport and physical activity enhance children’s learning by Dr Karen Martin, School of Population Health, The University of Western Australia May 2010, downloaded March 2014 from;
  8. How Physical Activity Can Help Kids Do Better in School, downloaded March 2014 from
  9. Educating the Student Body Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School, downloaded March 2014 from
  10. Childhood Obesity Facts, CDC, downloaded March 2014 from
  11. Physical Activity May Strengthen Children's Ability To Pay Attention, downloaded March 2014 from
  12. Physical Exercise during Encoding Improves Vocabulary Learning in Young Female Adults: A Neuroendocrinological Study Maren Schmidt-Kassow et al, Plos One May 20, 2013
  13. Physical Activity Across the Curriculum (PAAC): a randomized controlled trial to promote physical activity and diminish overweight and obesity in elementary school children Joseph E. Donnelly et al, Prev Med. Oct 2009; 49(4):336-341

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