The Effect of Physical Activity on Children’s Learning, Memory, and Cognitive Ability

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November 20th, 2018 0 Comments

Hunter Bennett

Over the last few decades, we have seen the activity levels of children decline at a somewhat steady and consistent pace. This could be due to an increase in the interest in technologically driven leisure activities. Alternatively, it could also be a decline in the availability of outside play locations.

The key takeaway is that kids are exercising less.

I don’t believe that people realize quite how severe the negative repercussions of this can be. This is especially important when we take a closer look at the impact that exercise can have on cognitive capabilities.

What are the benefits of exercise in kids?

There is a very good reason as to why most of the physical activity guidelines across the globe recommend that children should perform at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity per day. It is hands down the most important thing that they can do for their health (Gao, 2018).

Regular physical activity has been shown to help cause substantial improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness, while simultaneously limiting childhood weight gain and reducing the risk of developing childhood obesity.

With this comes associated improvements in cardiovascular and metabolic health. It can go a very long way to staving off the onset of heart disease and diabetes in later life.

Additionally, the performance of vigorous physical activity has been shown to contribute to normal bone growth and muscle function. As a result, it is absolutely essential to their normal physical development, while also playing a role in the prevention of bone breaks and fractures (Gunter, 2012).

This type of activity has also been shown to contribute to the development of children motor skills, and hand-eye coordination, while also providing a good base of foundational movement capabilities – all of which help in numerous activities of daily living in later life.

To summarise: exercise is incredibly important for all aspects of physical development.

Interestingly, there is also a growing body of evidence to suggest that regular physical activity can also have a huge influence on factors of cognitive and mental health as well – which is pretty crazy if you think about it.

Related Article: Kids Need To Move To Improve

The benefits of exercise in kids learning, memory, and cognitive abilities

There are several domains in which exercise can influence a child’s cognitive and mental capabilities. All of these are important to not only the child’s development but also to the child’s ability to function on a daily basis.

In an acute sense, participating in physical activity has been shown to cause significant and immediate improvements in attention capabilities. This means a heightened ability to maintain focus on a given task, and the improved capacity to selectively allocate their attention to the working task that they deem most important (Bidzan-Bluma, 2018). As an added bonus, this also appears to come with some associated improvements in mood and associated reductions in feelings of classroom stress.

In a very similar manner to the above point, there has been some strong associations observed between childhood activity levels and memory capabilities. In this manner, those children who exercise more tend to have much better working memory.

This means that their ability to retain and recall information is generally better than that of their inactive counterparts, which has been suggested to have obvious and positive implications for learning outcomes (Zhou, 2018).

Incredibly, there is also some interesting research demonstrating that the inclusion of regular exercise into a child’s routine may even enhance the measure of general intelligence.

While the exact mechanism for this remains somewhat unclear, it is known that exercise tasks require children to pay close attention to a given activity, while simultaneously using memory and reasoning processes to perform that activity – which has been hypothesized to result in adaptations in neural functioning.

Taking all of this into consideration, we know that physical activity is incredibly important a multitude of cognitive capabilities – but what does this really mean?

Academic performance and exercise?

The above points have the ability to contribute to long-term learning. There is a rather large body of evidence showing a very clear association between childhood physical activity levels and academic performance. With this in mind, those kids who exercise regularly generally perform better academically than those who do not (McPherson, 2018).

It could be hypothesized that those children who exercise more are better able to maintain attention on education-based tasks, and more capable of recalling relevant information.

As such, not only will they be able to learn new information more efficiently, but it is highly likely that their ability to apply that information into both academic tests and real-world scenarios would also be enhanced – thus leading to improvement in academic performance.

Exercise and brain development?

While the improvements in memory that comes with increases in physical activity and exercise have been apparent for quite some time, the reason for this interaction was not always known.

However, recent research has begun to shed further light on the topic.

This research has demonstrated that those children who tend to be more active (and also present with greater levels of cardiorespiratory fitness) also have increased development in certain areas of the brain – namely the basal ganglia and hippocampus (Chaddock‐Heyman, 2014).

These two areas are essential when it comes to cognitive control and nearly all aspects of memory. This suggests that exercise enhances cognitive capabilities at an intellectual level. It also causes physically desirable changes in the brain and nervous system. This can lead to large improvements in higher-order functioning.

Pretty crazy stuff!

Related Article: High-Intensity Interval Training and Children

The mental health benefits of exercise?

We have already explained that the acute participation in exercise can cause improvements in mood, while also reducing sensations of stress. Interestingly, it also appears that these improvements can lead to lasting mental health benefits.

You see, those children who exercise regularly tend to experience higher levels of self-esteem. Children who participate in more sedentary behaviors are at a higher risk.

This has been shown to come with a reduced risk of developing both depression and anxiety throughout their early childhood years, as well as deep into their adolescent years (Biddle, 2011).

As such, the impact of exercise and physical activity on the mental health of your children should not be discounted. Physical activity is one of the most mental-health positive things you can do for your child.

Take Home Message

Exercise and physical activity have long been known to have a myriad of physical health benefits in children. However, recent research has shown that it can also have positive implications for their mental state and their cognitive capabilities.

Exercise demonstrates improvements in mood, self-esteem, attention, memory, and learning. Physical activity plays an integral role in enhancing academic performance. It elicits structural changes in the brain and staving off mental illness.

It is truly one of the most important things on the planet to ensure all facets of your child development. What are you waiting for? Encourage it as much as possible, and allow your kids to reap the rewards.


Gao, Zan, et al. “Physical Activity in Children’s Health and Cognition.” BioMed research international 2018 (2018).

Gunter, Katherine B., Hawley C. Almstedt, and Kathleen F. Janz. “Physical activity in childhood may be the key to optimizing lifespan skeletal health.”. Exercise and sport sciences reviews 40.1 (2012): 13.

Bidzan-Bluma, Ilona, and Małgorzata Lipowska. “Physical activity and cognitive functioning of children: a systematic review.”. International journal of environmental research and public health 15.4 (2018): 800.

McPherson, Adrian, et al. “Physical activity, cognition and academic performance: an analysis of mediating and confounding relationships in primary school children.”. BMC public health 18.1 (2018): 936.

Zhou, Sun., Weidong, Sun. PO-124 “The effect of physical education on children’s learning and memory ability.” Proceeding of IBEC 2018, Beijing, China (2018).

Chaddock‐Heyman, Laura, et al. “III. The importance of physical activity and aerobic fitness for cognitive control and memory in children.”. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 79.4 (2014): 25-50.

Biddle, Stuart JH, and Mavis Asare. “Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: a review of reviews.”. British journal of sports medicine 45.11 (2011): 886-895.

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