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Physical Activity Breaks
May 2019


What does the research say about the relationship between recess or physical activity breaks and students’ behavior, focus, and academic performance?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Dills, A. K., Morgan, H. N., & Rotthoff, K. W. (2011). Recess, physical education, and elementary school student outcomes. Economics of Education Review, 30(5), 889–900. Prepublication version retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Today’s children experience a decreased amount of time at recess and fewer physical education (PE) classes throughout the school day. Breaks for physical activity limit class time for academics, potentially reducing learning. However, breaks may improve alertness and achievement. Using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999, we evaluate how recess and PE in elementary school influence children's learning. We find no statistically significant or economically significant impacts of weekly recess or PE time on student learning for kindergarteners through fifth graders."

Donnelly, J. E., Hillman, C. H., Castelli, D., Etnier, J. L., Lee, S., Tomporowski, P., ... Szabo-Reed, A. N. (2016). Physical activity, fitness, cognitive function, and academic achievement in children: A systematic review. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 48(6), 1197–1222. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The present systematic review found evidence to suggest that there are positive associations among physical activity (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."

Egger, F., Benzing, V., Conzelmann, A., & Schmidt, M. (2019). Boost your brain, while having a break! The effects of long-term cognitively engaging physical activity breaks on children’s executive functions and academic achievement. PloS ONE, 14(3), e0212482. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Classroom-based physical activity (PA) is gaining attention in terms of its potential to enhance children’s cognitive functions, but it remains unclear as to which specific modality of PA affects cognitive functions most. The aim of the study was to examine the effects of qualitatively different PA breaks on children’s cognitive outcomes. Children (N = 142) aged between 7 and 9 years were allocated to a 20-week classroom-based PA program, with either high physical exertion and high cognitive engagement (combo group), high physical exertion and low cognitive engagement (aerobic group), or low physical exertion and high cognitive engagement (cognition group). Executive functions (updating, inhibition, shifting) and academic achievement (mathematics, spelling, reading) were measured pre- and post-intervention. Results showed that the combo group profited the most displaying enhanced shifting and mathematic performance. The cognition group profited only in terms of enhanced mathematic performance, whereas the aerobic group remained unaffected. These results suggest that the inclusion of cognitively engaging PA breaks seem to be a promising way to enhance school children’s cognitive functions."

Lees, C., & Hopkins, J. (2013). Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition, academic achievement, and psychosocial function in children: A systematic review of randomized control trials. Preventing Chronic Disease, 10, E174. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Introduction: Although the effects of aerobic physical activity (APA) on children’s physical health is well characterized, the effect of aerobic physical activity on cognition, academic achievement, and psychosocial function has not yet been established. This systematic review provides an overview of research elucidating the relationship between aerobic physical activity and children’s cognition, academic achievement, and psychosocial function."

Rasberry, C. N., Lee, S. M., Robin, L., Laris, B. A., Russell, L. A., Coyle, K. K., & Nihiser, A. J. (2011). The association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance: A systematic review of the literature. Preventive Medicine, 52(Suppl. 1), S10–S20. Prepublication version retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Objective: The purpose of this review is to synthesize the scientific literature that has examined the association between school-based physical activity (including physical education) and academic performance (including indicators of cognitive skills and attitudes, academic behaviors, and academic achievement). Conclusion: Results suggest physical activity is either positively related to academic performance or that there is not a demonstrated relationship between physical activity and academic performance. Results have important implications for both policy and schools."

Singh, A. S., Saliasi, E., van den Berg, V., Uijtdewilligen, L., de Groot, R. H. M., Jolles, J., ... Chinapaw, M. J. M. (2019). Effects of physical activity interventions on cognitive and academic performance in children and adolescents: A novel combination of a systematic review and recommendations from an expert panel. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 53(10), 640–647. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Objective: To summarise the current evidence on the effects of physical activity (PA) interventions on cognitive and academic performance in children, and formulate research priorities and recommendations. Conclusion: There is currently inconclusive evidence for the beneficial effects of PA interventions on cognitive and overall academic performance in children. We conclude that there is strong evidence for beneficial effects of PA on maths performance."

Van Den Berg, V., Saliasi, E., de Groot, R. H., Chinapaw, M. J., & Singh, A. S. (2019). Improving cognitive performance of 9–12 years old children: Just dance? A randomized controlled trial. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Exercise is assumed to have positive effects on children’s cognitive performance. However, given the inconclusive evidence for the long-term effects of exercise, it is difficult to advise schools on what specific exercise programs can improve children’s cognitive performance. In particular, little is known about the effects of small exercise programs that may be feasible in daily school practice. Therefore, we assessed the effects of a 9-weeks program consisting of daily exercise breaks on children’s cognitive performance, aerobic fitness and physical activity levels."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Recess OR Physical Activity AND Movement and Physical Exercise AND Break, School OR Classroom, Research

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.