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What’s good for the body is good for the mind

By June 15, 2011June 14th, 201640 Comments

First Lady Michelle Obama tours the country speaking of healthy eating habits, Dr. Oz answers your health questions on daytime TV, and the USDA recently updated the food pyramid. As obesity rates rise, healthy living is front page news. Then why are schools cutting physical education (PE) programs? That answer has also been front page news: budget cuts and falling academic scores. Schools need to do more with less, and cutting PE leaves more time and money for academics. In California alone, according to a policy brief released in May by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 1.3 million teens in California do not participate in any school-based PE classes.

However, research shows that PE may be just what students need to perform better at school. Researchers Kathryn L. King, MD, and Carly J. Scahill, DO, from the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital implemented a program among 1st through 6th graders at low-performing schools in South Carolina that incorporated academic skills into physical activity. For instance, younger children used scooters to trace shapes on the ground, and older children climbed a rock wall outfitted with changing numbers to help them solve math problems. Students were engaged in this program for 40 minutes a day, five days a week. At the end of the year, test scores improved from 55 percent to 68.5 percent proficient.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules (2008), cites a similar study that examined the brain power of children before they began an exercise program. The children began jogging 30 minutes two or three times a week and, after 12 weeks, their cognitive performance had improved significantly. Perhaps just as important, when the exercise program was taken away, children’s scores plummeted back to pre-activity levels.

Because students are expected to learn more and more information at an increased rate, they need all the brain power they can create. Scores keep falling regardless of the programs and strategies schools implement—not unlike a “check engine” light that keeps appearing because, no matter how many times you take it to the shop, the mechanic isn’t fixing the actual problem. Maybe the mechanic is even making the problem worse.

Have you noticed the academic effects of cutting physical education in your school? Is more academic time a viable reason to cut ancillary programs?

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • LOVE the rock wall idea! We received a Nike GO! grant with amazing curriculum and equipment in LAUSD and began to look at each activity and how it could be standards-based, i.e. a fun race to have everyone line up in two teams and face the opposite ends of field/wall, and you designate each end for something, i.e. prime numbers vs. even, mammals or birds, etc, and you call it out and watch them run!

  • Deborah Williams says:

    I agree with the comment that PE just may be a pivotal key to increased student achievement. We have gone to the extreme on testing and limited our academic focus to basically reading and math…how is that really working for us as a nation? We have a bunch of students ready to graduate high school who are overweight and have no knowledge of their heritage (American History). We need to get back to a balanced education!!!!!

  • Eric says:

    I like the idea of involving activity with the learning. I do believe that physical activity can have a direct effect on cognitive potential; however, there should be a structured way of doing it that has a basis in valid statistical research. Otherwise, the students could become too tired to gain the benefits or they could not “spark” their minds enough. Are the amounts of time written about in the article arbitrary or are they based on research?

  • Judy Varner says:

    Fortunately in our middle school we have pe for the students. Also, in some classrooms the teachers “take 10”. During a classroom period the teacher infuses some type of physical activity in the lesson that lets the students move around instead of just sitting for long periods of time. I agree that pe is important to increase achievement.

  • Jen Tuzzeo says:

    Medina references many researched case studies in his book. You can find all the references from his book here:

  • I like the idea bout physical activity in the class. With that students feel relax and the feel comfortable with the physical activities.

  • Kim says:

    I too love the rock wall and scooter exercises. I think that teachers can also incorporate some brief kind of exercise iin their classrooms to promote physical activity. We are fortunate that our school still has PE but because of scheduling issues some classes may have it 2x a week and another class not at all. I think the Nike GO! grant also sounds awesome. It probably is something schools can do on their own and make activities standards based.

  • Kirsten says:

    I know that I get more energized and engaged in my instruction after attending PE with my fifth grade students.


    Physical education at our school is highly valued. As a staff, we recognize its value for impacting learning for all students on a regular basis.

  • Cynthia Bolt says:

    There is so much research out there that shows how much physical activity enhanced brain activity. I teach 2nd grade and at least once an hour take a few minutes to do something physical with my students. Sometimes I just have them stand up and touch their toes a few times. It just helps to get the blood flowing to all parts of their bodies. I have also used the “Take 10” program. I am also lucky to have a principal and staff who believes in the need for physical activity for our students. Each class at my school has PE at least 3 times a week.

  • John Mitsinikos says:

    There is no doubt that balanced education is imperative in improving the student as whole. Within our schools we should be exercising both the mind and the body of our students.

  • Katie says:

    Thanks for bringing a new idea to me about involving math facts into excercise!
    When I start to notice that my students are “checking out” during a math lecture, I ask them to get up and stretch. Possibly even play a “Teacher Says” silly game. This gets more oxygen to their brain and they are ready to get back to to the lecture.

  • Lynn Betterton says:

    PE was not always a favorite with me when growing up, but I always looked forward to going to PE class. PE has a way of helping relieve stress, engage the body and mind. Student can learn to mental think problems through during an activity of PE. I don’t think we give enough recess time and PE time to any students of any age. PE needs to come back for all students, and recess needs to occur at least 4 times during the day for elementry students.

  • caryl says:

    As a biology teacher, I of course think that keeping our body fit is important. I spend much time trying to teach my students the importance of nutrition and exercise on thinking. I had a student ask one time… “you mean what we eat can make us smarter?” I said that they limit their thinking ability by lack of good nutrition and lack of exercise so…you figure that out yourself. I think that we should have more emphasis on this. They hear it in health, but it is never applied.

  • Greg Watson says:

    Our district has undergone drastic cuts for this coming school year (over 400 teachers K-12). At the elementary level we lost all of our media teachers, and PE and music were cut back. I have been fortunate to work at a school where PE is valued and students get 30 minutes everyday. I know that on those days when something interrupted our PE time, students were less focused and engaged then on days when we had PE. With PE programs getting downsized and cut altogether I think it is going to be important that classroom teachers work in physical activity into their lessons. There is no reason that a part of a students academic time can not be revolved around being physically active. Our grade level team would talk with our PE teacher and see what games or activities he had taught them. We would then take that activity and add academics to it. This was a great way to reinforce concepts while getting students moving. It was also nice because the students were already familiar with the rules and we did not have to take a lot of time explaining how to do the activity. An example of this was a game that involved students running to countries as they were called out and not get tagged on their way. We took this same concept, but instead of countries to run to there were body systems. We would call out different parts of the human body that we had been studying and students would have to run to the correct system it belonged to (lungs = respiratory system). Students loved getting to “play” and as teachers we could really see who the students were that struggled with where to run! Most educators have seen or heard about research showing how students are more successful when they are active, it is time we incorporate student activity daily into our lessons.

  • Brooke says:

    I totally agree with you on this! Research has shown that the more active the body, the more active the mind. I recently was made aware of the “Take 10” initiative that teachers were implementing in their classrooms. If you’re not familiar with this it simply means using the curriculum and content together. For example, after learning about addition facts, the teacher can have the class review by calling out an addition problem like 4+3 and call on a student to answer. A student who gets that answer correct many choose an exercise like jumping jacks or toe touches and the whole class will do the exercise together until they reach the sum of 7. The process is repeated with different addition facts and exercises.

  • I am very supportive of P.E., health, and an active lifestyle. I teach special education, and it has been my experience that many of my children begin to become overweight in high school and in early adulthood. The middle school I teach at will not allow me to teach an adaptive P.E. class and they do not feel it is needed because my kids can “simply be included” in the general education classroom. My students typically read on a k-2nd grade reading level and all of the general education classes are taught on a 6th- 8th grade reading level; therefore, my students miss out on learning important health topics because modifications are often not made to help my students. My kids also require more repetition then the general education health curriculum allows, and this makes it hard for my students to 100% grasp the concepts. In P.E., the class sizes are 30+ kids and my students get lost in the crowd and are not encouraged to participate; therefore, they do not receive the exercise they deserve or the attention they require to learn new sports and games. Has anyone witnessed good inclusion methods for P.E./health classes? I will continue supporting P.E. and using active activities in my classroom. Thanks for the ideas!

  • Rick says:

    Agreed. PE is essential for students to “burn extra energy,” but what about incorporating the movement into the classroom lessons?

  • Rick says:

    Increasing student health and well-being would further encourage the energy to “study” and perform research necessary to further their own learning.

  • Nakia Breaux says:

    I agree that PE could be a way to get students more involved in learning. Students are motivated when they get to move around and I think that they grasp concepts more that way. I think that PE in schools should be valued and students should have more time in PE

  • Nakia Breaux says:

    We see obesity so much now a days, I wish that students had PE more often at our school.

  • Carlar Alexander says:

    I try to incorporate physical education as much as possible in my classroom. I can see the effects of movement around the classrom;when my students are kept in due to weather conditions, they are restless and participate less in class.

  • Schools must do more with less and cutting PE provides more time and money for academics. In California alone, according to a policy document published in May by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

  • Christie says:

    Students are diverse learners and I love the idea of incorporating exercise into teaching to improve student learning. It is amazing to see the data to prove that exercise improves student achievement. Being a special education teacher, I can see this strategy helping my students learn more effectively. This article has motivated me to try new strategies in the classroom to get my students’ bodies moving and their brains’ activated. I enjoy running and I agree that when I run on a regular basis, I am more focused and productive. I am eager to try different activities with physical movement and learning.

  • Casey says:

    Education should definitely be a holistic approach, how can we expect to teach students how to live a healthy lifestyle and not incorporate the fundamentals of one in our teaching!

  • Physical Education is a great way to make learning meaningful as it allows students to relate what they learn in the classroom to their own activities outside. We have learnt for years that a balance in education is needed to achieve. Therefore, why should we disrupt this balance by removing PE from our curriculum.

  • Carlee says:

    There is much evidence of the benefits of PE, including benefits to physical and mental health. While writing my thesis, I found that as students get older the amount of time we provide for PE and sport decreases. I also found that schools aren’t teaching students to be active throughout their lifetime, incorporating few lifestyle physical activities into their programs.
    From personal experience, I find students are better able to concentrate and focus after PE or when they are active. For active kids who are perhaps less academically inclined, PE also works well as a reward (for example, one teacher i know said to a group of boys that they could play basketball in the gym at lunchtime each time they improved their test score from their previous test). It also helps integration students to break up the day and improve their focus.
    PE is just as important as English and maths and should be given the time it deserves in the curriculum.

  • Brendan says:

    PE is an essential part of any school curriculum. Not only are there the physical benefits for the students and the research suggesting that it increases cognitive performance, but when undertaking a physical actvity program the students will also learn to set goals and self discipline. In addition to this think about the positive self image and increase in self esteem that inevitably comes with an increase in health and fitness. All of this will enhance a students overall performance in all aspects of their education.

  • Deb says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that the mind functions best when paired with physical activity. This continues on throughout life. Modeling should also be a part of this with instructors demonstrating the willingness to incorporate exercise into their daily lives. We are better educators when we start our day by feeding the brain through movement.

  • Cara says:

    I have found out through teaching Physical Education that it is fairly easy to incorporate Science and Health as well as Math in what we do in PE. I have actually worked with the Science teacher during classtime to make sure that the students are understanding a lab that they are doing that involves physical activity. There are numerous studies that show that physical activity does help boost their learning capacity.

  • Chad Osler says:

    As a PE teacher, differentiation within a PE program is not as hard as I originally thought it would be when I started teaching 4 years ago. More importantly, its nice that the kids don’t really know it is happening.
    Being able to have daily exercise is imperative to becoming a healthy body and mind. I have found, through observation, that the kids that I see in morning PE classes then again in afternoon health are more engaged and active in the classroom setting when compared to the students that have not had physical education prior to coming to my classroom.
    Administrators love trends and data. This article suggests that we are ignoring trends and data when it comes to the positive effects of daily physical activity on academic achievement!

  • A healthy body in a healthy mind ! Sports are mandatory especially for people who work or learn all day long sitting. In France it is an obligation in order to obtain the “Baccalaureatt” to get, at least, an average score at the test of gymnastics.

  • Matt Radzicki says:

    Though cutting PE saves money and allocates money for academics, it is important to stimulate student minds with physical activity.

  • Logan G. says:

    As a first grade teacher, it is my philosophy to educate my students and better their futures by building both healthy minds and bodies. When my students have had a healthy breakfast (not pop-tarts and cocoa puffs!)they are ready to learn and process. The students at my school go the P.E. only twice a week. The lack of physical activity seems to slow them down a bit… they always seem tired. I have integrated “brain breaks” into my lesson transitions to conquer their classroom drowsiness! Brain breaks are a great way to get their blood flowing and their brains thinking. It is also a great way to get the wiggles out! We mix up our brain breaks by doing yoga, hip-hop, Irish step dancing, “Simon-says” stretching, and much more! Get your students minds and bodies fit with fun, energizing and engaging, physically active breaks… brain breaks!

  • Stir-Crazy says:

    Great site, keep up the good work, my colleagues would love this. I read not a few blogs every day, and for the most part the authors lack substance, but not in this case. I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog, I’m gonna bookmark this web site. Thanks

  • Hannah Peat says:

    As a PE teacher, i find it appalling that more and more schools are cutting our sport or Physical education classes. We are forever having to defend why we need PE in our schools, however other subjects never get looked upon.
    Pe is needed in schools just as much as english, mathematics and science! Students who participate in physical activity whether in sport/PE classes or playing with mates at lunchtime perform better in class as their concentration levels are higher and have a clear mind.
    The sooner people accept that PE is here to stay, the better!

  • Michael Alexander says:

    Great Article!
    We have experienced a similar fate at our school, with a reduction in the time allowance for Physical Education to increase the time allowance for academic studies. Although it is difficult to say in the short term the impact on academic results both positively or negatively. As a physical educator it is very frustrating and seems hard to get this message across to people who are further entrenched in academic studies.

  • Brett says:

    Here, here. It is a shame that not all schools use this information to better their programs. P.E is and always will be the most important subject at schools. It teaches and educates students about the importance of healthy lifestyles and after all if we don’t have our health then what do we have??

  • Rebecca says:

    As a PE teacher it is frightening to see that there are numerous studies that show the need for PE in the curriculum yet it is still being dropped by schools all around the world! When will PE be recognised for it’s contribution to academic learning?

  • stuart says:

    Climbing a rock wall to solve maths problems, i would love to see this done!

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