Brain Power: Enhancing Children’s Learning through Physical Activity

Everyone knows that exercise is good for your body – but did you know that it’s important for your mental and cognitive health, too?

Extensive research demonstrates that regular physical activity has multiple benefits for physical, mental, and cognitive health. Physical activity is related to lower body fat, greater muscular strength, stronger bones, and improvements in cardiovascular and metabolic health, as well as to improvements in mental and cognitive health by reducing and preventing conditions such as anxiety and depression, enhancing self-esteem and increasing the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain.

And children are no exception. In fact, children who are physically active and fit are more likely to be active as adults, have a lower risk of obesity, and, get this, perform better in school. As children across the country go back to school this week, the important connection between physical activity and physical, mental and cognitive health should not be forgotten.

How does physical activity improve academic performance in children? Physical activity benefits the brain even before it benefits the body. The brain does not store its own fuel, nor does it produce its own fuel. The brain relies on the body to get its needed fuel—oxygen and glucose—to the brain. The healthier and more physically fit the body is, the more efficiently the brain gets this fuel, which means increased energy, concentration, focus, cognitive function and improved mood—all things that help in the classroom.

Some of the ways in which physical activity impacts the brain include the following:

  • Increases the levels of three important neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. Increased levels of these neurotransmitters are associated with improved mood, memory and cognitive processes and are also why exercise is known to be an effective, non-drug treatment of depression.
  • Improves oxygen flow to the brain. Increased oxygenation of the brain can help students sustain attention and improves their energy.
  • Increases neurogenesis, especially in the hippocampus which is a structure tucked deep in the brain that is known to be important in learning and memory.
  • Produces BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), nicknamed the fertilizer for the brain, which supports the survival of neurons and the growth of new ones. This in turn helps with decision-making, higher thinking and learning.

In my opinion, nothing illustrates the positive impact of physical activity on a child better than this image:

(Research/scan compliments of Dr. Chuck Hillman University of Illinois: Hillman, C.H., et al. (2009) The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience. 159(3):1044-54.)

In this image, we see that children who walked for 20 minutes before taking a test had far more activity in brain regions involved with focused attention and filtering out noisy distractions while they were taking the test compared to non-walkers. This study found that just 20 minutes of walking before a test raised children’s scores.

Current recommendations from the Institute of Medicine say that children under 6 need to be physically active for 15 minutes every hour, while older children need 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. But those 60 minutes don’t have to occur at once. It all adds up! And remember, sleep is just as important and is an essential part of living an active life. A recent study found that with each extra hour of sleep, the risk of a child being overweight or obese dropped by nine percent.

So what can you do to make sure your school-aged child is getting the full 60 minutes of physical activity he or she needs every day?

There are many great ways to increase your child’s physical activity in school and at home to help him or her realize the full benefits of physical activity. With the start of the school year, now is the perfect time to check with your child’s school and see how many minutes of physical activity your student is getting each day. If there are limited opportunities for students to be physically active, talk to your child’s principal and teachers about including more physical activity throughout the school day. Teachers can integrate quick brain breaks or energizers into their lesson plans that don’t have to take away from instruction time. For example, students can count by fives up to one hundred while doing jumping jacks or spell out their week’s spelling words while running in place. For some great ideas on how to increase your child’s opportunities for physical activity during the school day, check out this wonderful graphic by the Institutes of Medicine:

Engaging in physical activity as a family can also be a fun way to get children, and everyone else at home, moving. Studies show that kids who believe they are competent and have the skills to be physically active are more likely to be active. And those who feel supported by friends and families to become active, or surrounded by others interested in physical activity, are more likely to participate.

Here are some of my favorite suggestions for activities and steps that you and your family can take to a healthier lifestyle:

  • Give children toys that encourage physical activity like balls, kites, and jump ropes.
  • Limit TV time and keep the TV out of a child’s bedroom.
  • Take a family walk around the block after a meal.
  • Make a new house rule: no sitting still during television commercials.
  • Find time to spend together doing a fun activity: family park day, swim day or bike day.
  • Issue a family challenge to see who can be the first to achieve a Presidential Active Lifestyle Award by committing to physical activity five days a week, for six weeks. Adults and children can both receive the award!

And remember, the mental and cognitive benefits of physical activity are true for adults as well. The mental and cognitive health of physically fit adults are significantly better among those who are active. So next time you’re feeling tired or unfocused at work, think about taking a walk around the block instead of drinking a cup of coffee. There are many other ways you can boost your own physical activity during the day, whether it’s taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking to see a colleague instead of calling them or getting off the bus a stop earlier and walking the extra distance home.

Just remember that the benefits of physical activity go well beyond the impact it has on your physical appearance. Challenging yourself to be more active throughout the day will lead to many positive benefits. And, when your child comes home and tells you that her favorite class in school is physical education or recess, encourage her love of activity and be excited that she’s developing a fit body and mind.



Alex Mays has a BA in Neuroscience from Pomona College and a Master of Health Science in Child Development from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. She works for Healthy Schools Campaign, a Chicago based non-profit that advocates for policies and practices that allow all students, teachers and staff to learn and work in a healthy school environment. She lives in Chicago with her husband and enjoys playing basketball, running and coming up with creative ways to stay active during a polar vortex.  

 *Photo credit of Healthy Schools Campaign*


  1. Hi Barb, Yes! Physical activity is great for people over 70 years of age. Moderate physical activity in older adults is also associated with lots of great physical, mental and cognitive benefits as well. Just like in children, since physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, it helps with cell growth and can improve or maintain various aspects of cognitive function, such as your ability to shift quickly between tasks, plan an activity and focus on relevant information. It’s also shown to reduce the risk of depression in older adults and help you sleep better!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s