08 May 2019
Physical Activity and Sport During Exams

As exam season approaches, I thought it would be useful to share some thoughts about the benefits of continuing to take part in physical activity during exams.

The reality is not simply that participation in sport does not harm academic performance. The truth is much more encouraging than that: sport positively enhances academic outcomes – a fact proved conclusively in a range of studies.

"If exercise came in pill form, it would be plastered across the front page, hailed as the blockbuster drug of the century". Ratey and Hagerman

Schools have often implied a link between academic performance and physical activity. Every summer term, the debate rages as to whether playing sport enhances or impedes exam performance.

Given we now know there are undisputed benefits of exercise to learning, the question is exactly how does exercise benefit learning?

The following are a few of those ways:

Firstly, in addition to priming the state of mind (studies show that children learn better immediately following exercise), exercise also influences learning directly (and permanently) at the cellular level. Research evidence is starting to show that the traditional opposition between education and sport is simply mistaken, and that – far from interfering with the business of education – sport can actually make a valuable contribution to learning.

To explain this bold claim, I offer nine findings from Professor Richard Bailey (UNESCO’s Expert Adviser for Physical Education) into the effects of sport and physical activity that show that activity, in addition to its well-known virtues of keeping bodies fit and healthy, adds enormous value to education.

1. Sport and physical activity 'nourish' the brain, helping it work, grow and operate effectively.

2. Sport and physical activity can improve learning and memory.

3. Even short bouts of a few minutes of sport and physical activity can lead to improved concentration and attention.

4. Numeracy and literacy performance improve as a result of increasing levels of physical activity.

5. Regular exercise can alleviate depression and anxiety. At a time when mental health issues are an increasing concern in schools, exercise reduces anxiety through Serotonin production.

6. Institution-based sports and other physical activities are particularly valuable at creating a sense of belonging and commitment, and can help potentially marginalised students feel included and accepted.

7. Physically active people perform better academically then their inactive peers.

8. Physically active students tend to have more qualifications, engage in further study, have an improved chances of securing a good job, and even tend to get promoted more quickly.

9. Physically active individuals are seen by employers as healthier, more efficient, and more reliable.

So perhaps it is time for us to think again about our presumptions about the role of sport and physical activity? Far from being fun trivialities, or distractions from the main business of education, the evidence suggests that sport and physical activity can make valuable, distinctive contribution.