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Physical Activity in Elementary Classrooms
September 2017


What does the research say about the relationship between physical activity and elementary students' behavior, self-regulation, 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.


Carlson, J. A., Engelberg, J. K., Cain, K. L., Conway, T. L., Mignano, A. M., Bonilla, E. A. ... Sallis, J. F. (2015). Implementing classroom physical activity breaks: Associations with student physical activity and classroom behavior. Preventive Medicine, 81, 67–72.

From the Abstract:
Objective: To investigate the relation of classroom physical activity breaks to students' physical activity and classroom behavior.

Methods: Six elementary-school districts in California implemented classroom physical activity interventions in 2013–2014. Students' (N = 1,322) accelerometer-measured moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) during school and teachers' (N = 397) reports of implementation and classroom behavior were assessed in 24 schools at two time points (both post-intervention). Mixed-effects models accounted for nested data.

Results: Minutes/day of activity breaks was positively associated with students' MVPA (βs = .07–.14; ps = .012–.016). Students in classrooms with activity breaks were more likely to obtain 30 min/day of MVPA during school (OR = 1.75; p = .002). Implementation was negatively associated with students having a lack of effort in class (β = − .17; p = .042), and student MVPA was negatively associated with students being off task or inattentive in the classroom (β = − .17; p = .042). Students provided with 3–4 physical activity opportunities (classroom breaks, recess, PE, dedicated PE teacher) had ≈ 5 more min/day of school MVPA than students with no opportunities (B = 1.53 min/opportunity; p = .002).

Conclusions: Implementing classroom physical activity breaks can improve student physical activity during school and behavior in the classroom. Comprehensive school physical activity programs that include classroom-based activity are likely needed to meet the 30 min/day school physical activity guideline.

Kibbe, D. L., Hackett, J., Hurley, M., McFarland, A., Schubert, K. G., Schultz, A., & Harris, S. (2011). Ten Years of TAKE 10!®: Integrating physical activity with academic concepts in elementary school classrooms. Preventive Medicine, 52(1), S43–S50. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
Objective: Current literature supports the link between physical activity (PA) or fitness and a child's ability to achieve academically; however, little structured activity time is incorporated into elementary school classrooms. This paper explores the impact of a classroom-based PA program, TAKE 10!, and health–academic integration through existing state and federal policy and programming.

Methods: Evidence from journal articles, published abstracts, and reports were examined to summarize the impact of TAKE 10! on student health and other outcomes. This paper reviews 10 years of TAKE 10! studies and makes recommendations for future research.

Results: Teachers are willing and able to implement classroom-based PA integrated with grade-specific lessons (4.2 days/wk). Children participating in the TAKE 10! program experience higher PA levels (13%>), reduced time-off-task (20.5%), and improved reading, math, spelling and composite scores. Furthermore, students achieved moderate energy expenditure levels (6.16 to 6.42 METs) and studies suggest that BMI may be positively impacted (decreases in BMI z score over 2 years).

Conclusion: TAKE 10! demonstrates that integrating movement with academics in elementary school classrooms is feasible, helps students focus on learning, and enables them to realize improved PA levels while also helping schools achieve wellness policies.

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.

Methods: A systematic review of English articles was performed in April 2013 using MEDLINE, Cochrane, PsycINFO, SPORTDiscus, and EMBASE. Additional studies were identified through back-searching bibliographies. Only randomized control trials with an intervention of aerobic physical activity in children younger than 19 years that measured psychological, behavioral, cognitive, or academic outcomes were included.

Results: We found 8 relevant randomized control trials that met our inclusion criteria and extracted relevant data and evaluated the methodologic quality of the studies. Of the 8 studies identified, 2 studies were crossover randomized control trials studying the effects of acute aerobic physical activity on cognitive performance. Six studies were parallel-group randomized control studies, of which only 2 had a follow-up period of longer than 6 months. All studies showed that APA had a generally positive impact on children’s cognition and psychosocial function. However, this relationship was found to be minimal in many studies and in some measures, no significant improvement was seen at all. There was no documentation of APA having any negative impact on children’s cognition and psychosocial health, even in cases where school curriculum time was reassigned from classroom teaching to aerobic physical activity.

Conclusion: APA is positively associated with cognition, academic achievement, behavior, and psychosocial functioning outcomes. More rigorous trials with adequate sample sizes assessing the impact of APA on children’s cognitive abilities, psychosocial functioning, behavior, and academic achievement are needed, with standardized interventions, valid and reliable tools of measurement, and long-term follow-up for sustained cognitive and psychosocial outcomes.

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. (n.d.). Integrating physical activities into the complete school day. Retrieved from

From the Article:
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued physical activity guidelines for Americans, ages 6 and older. These guidelines recommend that children and adolescents should participate in 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of physical activity daily. Students need access to physical activity throughout the school day to meet these recommendations.

Schools can integrate physical activity throughout the school day by scheduling physical activity breaks and including physical activities during academic classes, creating opportunities for students to be active between classes, and providing physical activity before, during, and after school and through organized programs such as intramurals and recess.

Nicholson, H., Kehle, T. J., Bray, M. A., & Heest, J. V. (2011). The effects of antecedent physical activity on the academic engagement of children with autism spectrum disorder. Psychology in the Schools, 48(2), 198–213.

From the Abstract:
A multiple baseline design was used to examine the effects of participation in antecedent physical activity on the academic engagement of four elementary-school children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The results indicated large effect sizes for academic engaged time for all four students. It was suggested that physical activity in the form of something as simple to implement as jogging may be efficacious in promoting academic achievement for students diagnosed with ASD.

Sowa, M., & Meulenbroek, R. (2012). Effects of physical exercise on autism spectrum disorders: A meta-analysis. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(1), 46–57.

From the Abstract:
It is generally agreed that regular physical exercise promotes physical and mental health, but what are the benefits in people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)? This meta-analysis evaluates 16 behavioural studies reporting on a total of 133 children and adults with various variants of the syndrome who were offered structured physical activities either in an individual or a group context. The effects on social and motor deficiencies, two of the three primary symptom clusters of ASD, were normalized to afford a quantitative evaluation. Results pertaining to communication deficits were insufficient to permit classification. All activity programmes yielded significant progress on the measures assessed, but the individual programmes elicited significantly more improvement than the group interventions in the motor and, more surprisingly, also in the social domain. Although overall sample sizes were small, the combined results do permit the tentative conclusion that, in terms of motor performance and social skills, children and adults with ASD benefit most from individual exercise interventions. Further research of the impact of individual and group interventions on communication deficits in particular, as well as studies gauging the extent to which exercise effects depend on ASD symptom severity, are warranted.

U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Adolescent and School Health. (2010). The association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance (Rev. ed.). Retrieved from

From the Executive Summary:
When children and adolescents participate in the recommended level of physical activity—at least 60 minutes daily—multiple health benefits accrue. Most youth, however, do not engage in recommended levels of physical activity. Schools provide a unique venue for youth to meet the activity recommendations, as they serve nearly 56 million youth. At the same time, schools face increasing challenges in allocating time for physical education and physical activity during the school day.

There is a growing body of research focused on the association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance among school-aged youth. To better understand these connections, this review includes studies from a range of physical activity contexts, including school-based physical education, recess, classroom-based physical activity (outside of physical education and recess), and extracurricular physical activity. The purpose of this report 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.


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