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Math, Literacy: Classroom Physical Activity Breaks

January 2017


What is the impact of classroom physical activity breaks on K–12 academic achievement?


Following an established REL Central research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles to help answer the question. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response, and we offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Castelli, D. M., Glowacki, E., Barcelona, J. M., Calvert, H. G., & Hwang, J. (2015). Active education: Growing evidence on physical activity and performance (Research Brief). San Diego, CA: Active Living Research. Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“There is a growing body of evidence indicating that physical activity and fitness can benefit both health and academic performance for children. This research brief reviews published scientific articles that examine how physical activity and fitness may help school-aged children maximize their academic performance. It also provides an overview of the effects of physical activity on the developing brain. Together, the research indicates that providing physical activity for students is in line with schools’ academic mission, and that schools have many opportunities for helping young people to be more active.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). The association between school based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

From the executive summary:

“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.”

Donnelly, J. E., Greene, J. L., Gibson, C. A., Sullivan, D. K., Hansen, D. M., Hillman, C. H., ... Washburn, R. A. (2013). Physical activity and academic achievement across the curriculum (A + PAAC): Rationale and design from a 3-year, cluster-randomized trial. BMC Public Health. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Background[:] Improving academic achievement and reducing the rates of obesity in elementary school students are both of considerable interest. Increased physical activity during academic instruction time during school offers a potential intervention to address both issues. A program titled ‘Physical Activity Across the Curriculum’ (PAAC) was developed in which classroom teachers in 22 elementary schools were trained to deliver academic instruction using physical activity with a primary aim of preventing increased BMI. A secondary analysis of data assessed the impact of PAAC on academic achievement using the Weschler Individual Achievement Test-II and significant improvements were shown for reading, math and spelling in students who participated in PAAC. Based on the results from PAAC, an adequately powered trial will be conducted to assess differences in academic achievement between intervention and control schools called, ‘Academic Achievement and Physical Activity Across the Curriculum (A + PAAC).’ Methods/design[:] Seventeen elementary schools were cluster randomized to A + PAAC or control for a 3-year trial. Classroom teachers were trained to deliver academic instruction through moderate-to-vigorous physical activity with a target of 100+ minutes of A + PAAC activities per week. The primary outcome measure is academic achievement measured by the Weschler Individual Achievement Test-III, which was administered at baseline (Fall 2011) and will be repeated in the spring of each year by assessors blinded to condition. Potential mediators of any association between A + PAAC and academic achievement will be examined on the same schedule and include changes in cognitive function, cardiovascular fitness, daily physical activity, BMI, and attention-to-task. An extensive process analysis will be conducted to document the fidelity of the intervention. School and student recruitment/randomization, teacher training, and baseline testing for A + PAAC have been completed. Nine schools were randomized to the intervention and 8 to control. A random sample of students in each school, stratified by gender and grade (A + PAAC = 370, Control = 317), was selected for outcome assessments from those who provided parental consent/child assent. Baseline data by intervention group are presented. Discussion[:] If successful, the A + PAAC approach could be easily and inexpensively scaled and disseminated across elementary schools to improve both educational quality and health.”

Erwin, H., Fedewa, A., & Ahn, S. (2013). Student academic performance outcomes of a classroom physical activity intervention: A pilot study. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 5(2), 109–124. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Physical activity is beneficial to children’s health, yet academic pressures limit opportunities for students throughout the school day. The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of a classroom PA intervention on student academic performance outcomes. Intervention participants (n=15) received daily PA breaks. Reading and mathematics fluency, PA, grades, and standardized test scores were collected. Effects of the intervention were examined using mixed-design ANOVAs. Intervention students had significantly higher reading fluency and mathematics scores postintervention and higher means for standardized reading and mathematics scores as well as grades. Short bouts of PA are important for improving CBM math and reading fluency scores. Classroom teachers should be encouraged to devote time during academic learning to incorporate PA.”

Fedewa, A. L., Ahn, S., Erwin, H., & Davis, M. C. (2015). A randomized controlled design investigating the effects of classroom-based physical activity on children’s fluid intelligence and achievement. School Psychology International, 36(2), 135–153. Retrieved from
Full text available's_fluid_intelligence_and_achievement

From the abstract:

“Existing literature shows promising effects of physical activity on children’s cognitive outcomes. This study assessed via a randomized, controlled design whether additional curricular physical activity during the school day resulted in gains for children’s fluid intelligence and standardized achievement outcomes. Participants were children (N = 460) from four urban schools in the Southeast United States. Schools were randomly assigned to treatment and control conditions. Treatment schools received additional physical activity breaks throughout the school day while control schools maintained a typical schedule without curricular activity breaks. Results from the one-year study show positive effects for children’s mathematics and reading achievement but no differences across treatment and control groups for children’s fluid intelligence scores. Implications for school psychologists in promoting physical activity breaks on a systems-wide level are discussed.”

Mullender-Wijnsma, M. J., Hartman, E., de Greeff, J. W., Doolaard, S., Bosker, R. J., & Visscher, C. (2016). Physically active math and language lessons improve academic achievement: A cluster randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics, 137(3), 1–9. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“OBJECTIVES: Using physical activity in the teaching of academic lessons is a new way of learning. The aim of this study was to investigate the effects of an innovative physically active academic intervention (‘Fit & Vaardig op School’ [F&V]) on academic achievement of children. METHODS: Using physical activity to teach math and spelling lessons was studied in a clusterrandomized controlled trial. Participants were 499 children (mean age 8.1 years) from second- and third-grade classes of 12 elementary schools. At each school, a second- and third-grade class were randomly assigned to the intervention or control group. The intervention group participated in F&V lessons for 2 years, 22 weeks per year, 3 times a week. The control group participated in regular classroom lessons. Children’s academic achievement was measured before the intervention started and after the first and second intervention years. Academic achievement was measured by 2 mathematics tests (speed and general math skills) and 2 language tests (reading and spelling). RESULTS: After 2 years, multilevel analysis showed that children in the intervention group had significantly greater gains in mathematics speed test (P < .001; effect size [ES] 0.51), general mathematics (P < .001; ES 0.42), and spelling (P < .001; ES 0.45) scores. This equates to 4 months more learning gains in comparison with the control group. No differences were found on the reading test. CONCLUSIONS: Physically active academic lessons significantly improved mathematics and spelling performance.”

Mullender-Wijnsma, M. J., Hartman, E., de Greeff, J. W., Bosker, R. J., Doolaard, S., & Visscher, C. (2015). Improving academic performance of school-age children by physical activity in the classroom: 1-year program evaluation. Journal of School Health, 85(6), 365–371. Retrieved from
Full text available

From the abstract:

“BACKGROUND: An intervention was designed that combined physical activity with learning activities. It was based upon evidence for positive effects of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) on academic achievement. The aim of this study was to describe the program implementation and effects on academic achievement after 1 year. METHODS: Second- and third-grade classes of 6 elementary schools were included in the study. The intervention group participated in physically active academic lessons and the control group in regular classroom lessons. Implementation measures were obtained and the children were pretested and posttested on mathematics and reading. RESULTS: Teacher observations and self-reports indicated that the lessons were implemented as planned. Classroom observations showed that children’s on-task behavior during the lessons was above 70%. On the basis of heart rate measures, on average 64% of the lesson time was spent in MVPA. Posttest mathematics and reading scores of third-grade children who participated in the intervention were significantly higher in comparison with control children. Posttest mathematics scores of second-grade children in the intervention condition were significantly lower in comparison with control children. CONCLUSIONS: The intervention program was successfully implemented and the lessons contributed to the academic outcomes of third-grade children.”


Keywords and Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Physical activity AND classroom
  • Reading achievement OR academic achievement OR math achievment

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Insititute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and Google.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

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

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published for last seven years, from 2010 to present, were include in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that were published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. ERIC was the next priority, followed by academic databases, including EBSCO, JSTOR, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were used in the review and selection of the references: (a) currency of available data; (b) study types–randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order; (c) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected samples, etc.), study duration, and so forth.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Central Region (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Central at Marzano Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Central under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0005, administered by Marzano Research. Its 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.