Promises that the 2012 London Olympics would inspire children to be more active look like empty rhetoric six years on. Surveys suggest a significant slump in sports activities and physical education offered by schools. Many pupils exercise for less than two hours per week.
Inactivity in schools is a result of the relentless pressure on teachers to win their own races. And the primary measures of success are results in academic tests. This narrow focus leaves little time in the school day to develop the other valuable attributes we want for our children – be they creative, vocational or physical.
There are several plausible reasons why aerobic exercise might enhance cognitive development: increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain; the creation of new neurons that help with memory; reduced stress; and improved concentration. Yet researchers have found only a modest direct link between sports participation and academic progress.
Link sport to structured learning
What appears to work best is when sport is linked to structured learning – combining physical activity with study-skill sessions, or lessons. When participation in sport is offered as an incentive for pupils to undertake additional instruction, it can yield an extra two months’ progress over an academic year. Sessions should be regular and short.
But pupils can gain benefits from exercise that are just as important as their academic development. It is linked with improved physical, psychological and social health outcomes, from improved cardiovascular fitness, healthier bones and mental wellbeing, to higher self-esteem, more positive physical self-perception and lower blood pressure.
The more physical activity, the greater the health benefits. One review suggested children should do at least 60 minutes of activity every day. Exercise should be of at least a moderate intensity. But benefits can be achieved through 30 minutes per day, particularly for children at high risk of obesity. Team sport is associated with improved social interaction, and offers opportunities to develop leadership skills.
We need to up our game – both in the sports and physical exercise we offer pupils, but also the research required to elucidate clearer causal links between activities and their many likely positive outcomes.
Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of the Sutton Trust and Steve Higgins is a professor of education at Durham University. They authored the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, now the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit