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How Physical Activity in Primary Schools Supports Pupils Academic Achievement and Development

Physical activity is a necessary part of maintaining the health and well-being of young children. According to the NHS, children between the ages of 5 and 18 need 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. Only 44.9% meet this target.

With a quarter of all children in the UK leaving primary school obese, physical health and fitness have obviously become a vital consideration in schools. As we are all aware, obesity leads to a number of health issues that have a considerable effect on quality of life. Daily exercise, driven by physical activity events during the school day and active lessons, could help reduce the alarming rates of obesity in children and young people.

Though the physical benefits of keeping active and in shape are well documented and widely known, very few people associate physical activity with academic achievement and development. But regular exercise can improve everything from concentration to behaviour, and has been found to positively impact grades and test results.

We explore how physical activity supports academic achievement, detailing the benefits of physical activity in children and young people, and what primary schools can do to help.

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Improve academic results with daily physical activity

Many teachers and parents alike have acknowledged the value of the more apparent benefits of physical education, like fitness and improved communication skills, but perhaps have not considered it to be useful for academic study, or even a distraction from the main school curriculum. That physical education is entirely separate from academics is a misplaced sentiment; recent studies have found that children who exercise regularly tend to outperform their inactive counterparts.

A CDC study found “substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardised test scores.” Another trial, conducted across 24 schools over a 3-year period entitled Physical Activity Across the Curriculum, came to the conclusion that students who participated in physically active classes improved their academic achievement by 6% on average. This trial only promoted 90 minutes of physical activity a week; highlighting that though 60 minutes a day is optimal, any contribution helps.

Research conducted by WHO also discovered that physical activity was “beneficial for the development of cognitive, motor and social skills”, which had a “knock-on effect on academic performance”.

Physical activity increases metabolism, oxygenation and blood flow to the brain, releases hormones that positively impact neurological health and generally improves brain function. Its importance in the development of children and young people cannot be understated; improved academic performance is only an additional bonus to a long list of health benefits.

Physical activity improves cognitive abilities

Cognitive abilities like memory, focus, reasoning and evaluation can all be enhanced with physical activity. As mentioned previously, exercising improves the flow of oxygenated blood into the brain and causes a chemical reaction, releasing hormones that promote happiness and focus.

Physical activity boosts the production of cells in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning; some people who are in good shape have been found to have a physically larger hippocampus than those who are unfit. With a sharper memory, improved attention span and quicker processing skills, pupils will find academic learning far easier.

Students that are sedentary and lacking in physical fitness will be at a disadvantage in their education, as their cognitive skills, and therefore memory, focus and executive function will be inferior.

Maintaining children’s physical activity levels at 60 minutes a day can boost concentration

60 minutes is the ideal, but even 10 minutes can make a difference. Exercise gives a mental boost of hormones and chemicals that improve focus and concentration; making exercise in the mornings particularly effective. Starting the day active sets the tone for the rest of the day, granting pupils the chance to release some energy and focus better in their classes.

Children and young people are leading increasingly sedentary lives. Outside of the classroom and the school day, technology and social media has replaced time that was once spent active and outdoors. By bringing daily physical activity into schools, you can ensure children are maintaining healthy activity levels that will improve their health and concentration.

Find out more about the importance of activity levels on concentration in class.

How Physical Activity in Primary Schools Supports Pupils Academic Achievement and Development

Daily exercise improves classroom conduct and behaviour

Children have boundless reserves of energy, which can sometimes bubble over into unfortunate behaviours in the classroom. Sport and physical activity should aim to interest children, provide an outlet for all that energy, and, as a bonus, improve self-control and general brain function.

The challenges involved in teaching a large class of restless children are clear; by introducing daily physical activity, you can develop a strategy to keep your pupils focused and engaged. Keeping children active has been known to improve classroom behaviour, reduce truancy and allow for more time actively teaching.

Physical activity can improve mental health

Mental health and academic performance often go hand in hand for pupils. If a student’s mental health is ignored and worsens, they will struggle not only academically, but in their daily life.

Physical activity has been proven to help with a variety of mental health issues, acting as a supplementary support to other treatments. Promoting regular exercise can help with common ailments like stress, as well as more specific conditions such as ADHD, making it a worthwhile practice to implement in schools.

By protecting the emotional wellbeing of young people, you can improve their quality of life and, as an aside, improve their academic performance.

Stress and anxiety

School can be a source of great stress for children and young people, with tests and learning, an enclosed environment and even social interaction all potential contributors to anxiety. Physical activity can be a fantastic way to reduce stress and anxiety during the school day.

When we exercise, chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins are released which create a feeling of happiness; at the same time, chemicals that negatively affect our mood are flushed out much quicker. In children, emotions are heightened – and this benefit of exercise is felt even more keenly.

In a survey on ‘What do parents think of PE and how does it affect child health and wellbeing?’, it was noted that 53% of parents found that participating in physical education improved the mood of their child.

Being physically active can also help with social and personal development, boosting confidence and communication skills that benefit children both in and out of the academic sphere. Team sports like football, hockey and basketball are especially effective at building those essential communication and leadership skills.


The classroom setting can be a particularly difficult learning environment for children with ADHD. Sitting still, focusing on teachers and participating in lessons that demand complete concentration can feel almost impossible for children and young people with the condition.

Physical activity is great for boosting concentration and cognitive abilities in all children but has a noticeably increased effect on children with ADHD. While it is not a substitute for treatment or medication, exercise can help mitigate the symptoms of ADHD, making school a more engaging and pleasant environment for children living with ADHD.


Though commonly associated with adults, depression can affect children and young people too. A constant low mood, irritability, tiredness and disinterest in things they once enjoyed are all common symptoms in children with depression.

Depression can occur in children as young as those in primary school – keeping an eye on children if these symptoms persist for a long time may indicate whether or not they are suffering from depression or something more fleeting.

While professional help is superior to anything else, physical activity has been found to help combat depression. Engaging in regular physical activity boosts energy levels, releases chemicals that promote happiness, and helps reduce the impact of depression on daily life.

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How primary schools can promote physical activity

While the school curriculum is already densely packed and challenging for teachers, there is more primary schools can do to inspire children to keep fit and physically active at this key stage of their lives.

Here are a few things teachers and schools can do to introduce more physical activity into the school day, and therefore boost academic performance.

Make physical education engaging

Physical education should be fun. Primary schools have an important role in setting up good habits for life, and making sport and physical activity enjoyable will inspire children to incorporate daily physical activity into their routine going forward.

New research from Public Health England found, after questioning a total of roughly 2,000 parents and children in 2018, that 59% of children would be more active if exercise felt fun. Teachers can make sport and physical activity something that children look forward to rather than dread; by introducing a variety of sports and activities, pupils are more likely to find something they enjoy.

Physical activity isn’t limited to PE

While physical education, or PE, is ideal for physical activity, it shouldn’t be constrained to only these designated time slots. Teachers can introduce exercise in gentler, non-competitive forms during lessons.

If there is an opportunity to turn classes into active lessons – for instance, a history lesson involving re-enactments – teachers should embrace them. Making education active engages children and young people in the lesson, includes a wider range of learning types, and can help children experience the advantages listed previously without ever leaving the lesson.

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Provide a safe environment for commuting

If the area surrounding the school is busy and dangerous, with traffic constantly rushing past, parents may feel uncomfortable walking their children to school. By creating a safer environment, perhaps with the introduction of wardens, parents will feel able to walk with their children to school; bringing an ideal amount of physical activity into the beginning of the school day.

Another way to encourage children to walk to school is by introducing walking initiatives and groups. Organised walking groups are a safe way to make the commute to school active and fun, while simple rewards like stickers and badges add an extra incentive for the children.

Training teachers to promote physical activity

Giving teachers guidance on how best to promote an active lifestyle, make physical education engaging, and how to combine learning with physical activity is essential. With so much already to consider in teaching, it can be difficult for teachers to find the time or resources to come up with innovative solutions to the issue. By offering teachers support through bespoke training sessions, schools will be able to put these ideas into practice.

Curricular support and after-school extra-curricular classes

External providers can offer support to schools aiming to increase access to physical activity throughout the week. With so little time to spare in the school day, it can be difficult to fit the recommended 60 minutes of exercise in. Here at Premier Education, we offer extra-curricular clubs and sessions that are fun, safe and varied.

Primary schools can access affordable solutions with highly-trained professionals to help maintain children’s physical activity levels throughout the week. Thousands of schools are already enjoying the curriculum support and extra-curricular classes delivered by Premier Education coaches. We provide adaptable PE & Personal Development solutions that align with PESSPA, taking into account the individual needs of each of our partner schools; all our solutions are in accordance with the guidelines of the PE national curriculum and Education Inspection Framework (EIF).

Premier Education provides a fully sequenced, high-quality curriculum that supports the rounded development of primary-aged children. Our lessons are active, engaging and fun; as well as keeping the mind and body in great shape, we encourage confidence and creativity and skill development.

Physical activity and academic performance

With so much evidence indicating a variety of benefits to incorporating daily physical activity into the school day, it is worth implementing a few changes to make it happen. Students of primary school age have more to gain than most, as the effects of exercising on the brain are heightened in younger children.

Premier Education can help primary schools reap the academic advantages of participating in daily physical activity. Introducing a routine of physical activity through fun and engaging classes with highly-trained professionals is great for improving fitness (and therefore academic performance), and takes some of the pressure away from teachers to create the perfect curriculum without any help.

Get in touch today to find out Premier Education can support physical activity at your school.