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‘School in motion’ is a school based physical activity intervention that was recently tested in an elementary school in Sweden. The study reported favourable results, suggesting that reducing physical activity in schools to prioritize academics may be counterproductive. Instead, the study suggests that schools should focus on increasing the physical activity of elementary school children, which positively affects academic achievement, and causes beneficial health effects.

While obesity is on the rise amongst school-aged children, there are many studies that have demonstrated that increasing physical activity can reverse the negative health effects of a predominantly sedentary lifestyle. While it has been shown that increased physical activity has beneficial effects on body mass, physical fitness, insulin sensitivity, and self-esteem, a new study conducted in Sweden has now demonstrated that increased physical activity also has positive effects on academic achievement of school-aged children.

An intervention called ‘school in motion’ aimed to assess the effects of increased curriculum-based physical activity on academic achievement of elementary school students. Beginning in 2004, in Sweden, children from preschool through grade 6 were involved in the intervention program. The program consisted of two weekly physical activity classes that were implemented by a local sports club. All other aspects of the school schedule remained unchanged. The physical activity classes were 30-45 minute sessions consisting of non-competitive sporting games and activities.

Academic results were included from 408 students in the intervention school, and 1557 students from other similar schools in the same region. The academic scores of students in the study area were reviewed from four years before the intervention program to five years after it. The results of the study revealed that an increase in school-based physical activity significantly improved the academic achievement of the children involved.

In light of this study, it becomes somewhat ironic that physical education classes worldwide have been cut in favour of academic work; this study suggests that this trend could actually be counterproductive. The author of the study suggests several underlying reasons as to why the increase in physical activity resulted in an increase in academic scores. These reasons include: an increase in concentration in the classroom, improved mental health, stress relief, decreased boredom, all of which would increase the concentration and attention span of the children in the classroom. In addition, it was suggested that the exercise resulted in increased cerebral blood flow could have been an underlying biological factor in the children’s improved grades. Nevertheless, the increase in physical activity by a curriculum-based intervention was shown to improve the educational outcome of children, which was measured by an improvement in academic scores.

There is currently a study recruiting participants that is also assessing the effect of a school-based physical activity program on students’ cognitive performance. The study is being conducted by the University of Vermont in the United States. It is a pilot study which will enrol approximately 100 children aged between 7 and 11 years, 50 of whom will be allocated to participate in extra physical activity 3 days a week at school, for a total of 12 weeks. The students will then be compared to the other 50 children, who will not participate in the physical activity program, on measures of body composition, nutrition, and curriculum-based measures.

The results of studies such as these will have important implications for school based physical activity programs, as well as academic programs. A paradigm shift in thinking could promote physical activity in schools, which would, by default, increase the academic achievement of the students, without increasing time devoted to academic classes.


Käll, LB, Nilsson, M, Lindén, T.“The Impact of a Physical Activity Intervention Program on Academic Achievement in a Swedish Elementary School Setting”Journal of School HealthVolume 84, Issue 8, pages 473–480, August 2014.“Before-School Physical Activity Intervention in Elementary School Children” Available from: Accessed: Oct 21, 2014.

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Written by Deborah Tallarigo, PhD

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