Increasing the amount of sport that children do - even if this means cutting down on the time devoted to other subjects - can help improve their academic results.
Not only is there scientific basis to the saying mens sana in corpore sano ("a healthy mind in a healthy body"), but sport can also improve pupils' psychological well-being, according to a new report.
Richard Bailey, a freelance education and sports researcher, conducted a review of existing research into the effects of sport on schoolchildren. He found that improving pupils' physical competence could have dramatic effects on their intellectual and social development as well.
Although many parents acknowledge that sport is an important part of children's lives, Bailey believes that people increasingly feel it should not interfere with "the real business of schooling, which many believe to be academic achievement and exam results".
However, as far back as the 1960s, studies have shown a clear link between physical activity and exam success. In a study carried out between 1951 and 1961 in France, researchers reduced the academic curriculum by 26 per cent, replacing it with sport and other physical activities. But academic results remained the same, and there were fewer discipline problems. Attendance improved, and pupils were noticeably more attentive during lesson time.
A similar project in Australia in 1983 reduced classroom teaching by between 45 and 60 minutes each day, replacing it with a physical-activity programme. Again, literacy and numeracy appeared to suffer no ill effects.
Other studies found that pupils' results actually improved when the amount of time allocated for sport was increased. One 1997 report found that a three-hour reduction in weekly classroom time, replaced with increased time for PE, led to higher scores in standardised maths tests.
And a 2008 Swedish study showed that increasing the number of PE lessons from two a week to one daily resulted in improved reading, writing and maths test scores. No extra tuition was offered in any of these subjects.
"The cognitive benefits accrued from physical activity more than compensate for time spent away from other subjects," Bailey says.
Physical activity, he adds, increases blood flow to the brain, stimulating brain development. It promotes adaptation and growth in the brain, allowing it to respond to new challenges. This, combined with the break that PE provides from sedentary classroom work, contributes to improved cognitive function.
Participation in sport has also been linked to improved self-esteem and decreased levels of anxiety among pupils. Bailey says: "Sporting activities can create a nurturing environment in which young people can make new friends and have a sense of belonging to a team, a club or community.
"Even young people who identify themselves explicitly as non-joiners seem able to join like-minded peers in informal or lifestyle sports, and through this find a bridge between social and personal identities."
Many girls, Bailey said, gradually became disillusioned with school PE, and participated less and less as they progressed through secondary education. Inappropriate provision might actually increase disaffection and truancy in such cases, Bailey suggests.
However, appropriately delivered sports lessons can help teenage girls develop an important sense of physical self-esteem: "This is particularly important in environments where adolescents are encouraged to view their bodies as sexual and reproductive resources, rather than sources of strength for themselves."
Nonetheless, Bailey adds a word of caution: "Sport is important to young people, and so has potential for a negative influence that is dependent upon outcome (winning or losing)."
Bailey, R. The Benefits of Sport for Children: tri-athletic development