This is your brain in the gym: physical education and cognitive outcomes

Sit mens sana in corpore sano

It is to be prayed that the mind be sound in a sound body.

Ask for a brave soul that lacks the fear of death,

which places the length of life last among nature’s blessings,

which is able to bear whatever kind of sufferings,

does not know anger, lusts for nothing and believes

the hardships and savage labours of Hercules better than

the satisfactions, feasts, and feather bed of an Eastern king.

I will reveal what you are able to give yourself;

For certain, the one footpath of a tranquil life lies through virtue.

The Roman poet Juvenile (in his Satires 10.356-64) famously popularised the claim that a ‘‘healthy body leads to a healthy mind” around the end of the 1st Century AD. In doing so, he started the long tradition of associating development of the mind and development of the body.

Juvenile’s statement stands in stark contrast to many influential schools of thought over the last two thousand years. Generally speaking, the body has not been taken seriously in Western thought, and has been taken up only to be dismissed in comparison with the mind or the soul. Certain forms of Christianity taught that the body was depraved and the source of sin (Brown, 1988). While some classical writers, such as Plato and Aristotle, asserted a view to the effect that the development of the mind needs to be balanced by the development of the body (Hills, 1998), Western philosophy has tended to present the body as of only marginal significance to human beings, concerned primarily with moving and sustaining the mind. Philosophers from René Descartes to Immanuel Kant to the present day have characterised the human being as a mental subject in a physical, material body (Brevik, 2008): the mind is central; the body is merely functional. Gilbert Ryle (1949) famously depicted this view as ‘the ghost in the machine’, although a more graphical metaphor might be ‘the mind in the meat’. So, the importance of the body lies in its ability to move the mind from place to place. It needs to be fit and healthy because these are the conditions necessary for effective mobility.

Two main lines of attack have been launched during the last half Century against this viewpoint. The first originated from the continental school of philosophy called phenomenology. Thinkers like Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty raised objections to the traditional view by highlighting the role of the body in the human being interactions with the world. Heidegger (1963) challenged the mind-body / subject-object distinction of thinkers like Descartes by defining the human being as Dasein (being-in-the-world). As we make our way in the world, he argued, we do so neither as a subject mind, or as an objective body, but as a coherence of being-in-the-world. This approach was taken up and substantially extended by Merleau-Ponty (1962) who presented the body as an active agent in the world. For him it is the body-being-in-the-world that captures the human condition. The second source of criticism of the Cartesian human comes from modern cognitive science. Hubert Dreyfus (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986) has spent decades critiquing the ‘Information Processing’ of learning that is still influential, in which the mind runs a series of motor programs, rather like a computer runs its programs, and the body simply follows the commands (Bailey and Pickard, in press). Recent work by thinkers like Andy Clark (1997) have taken Dreyfus’ ideas much further, both in terms of the radical nature of the hypotheses and by actually translating the theory into the practice of artificial intelligence.

Yet, despite the criticisms of the philosophers and the scientists, the Western mindset continues to place the body as a poor second to the mind. This is the context in which the Western model of education, which has increasingly come to dominate all corners of the world, has always been concerned first and foremost with the mind and its products (such as reason, thinking and knowledge). It seems reasonable, therefore, to suggest that the marginal position of the subject most closely concerned with matters of the body - physical education – reflects the marginal role of the body in wider discourse (Hardman and Marshall, 2000).

So, this is not merely an academic issue: school systems are profoundly affected by the beliefs and values about the relative importance of the mind and body; similarly, parents and students absorb these beliefs and values, which influence the ways they approach schooling, prioritise certain sorts of activities over others, and withdraw completely from those educational experiences judged to be of little value. Physical Education has its place, they seem to argued, but it should not interfere with the real business of schooling, which many believe to be academic achievement and examination results (Lau et al., 2004; Lindner, 2002).

This post outlines some of the research into the relationship between physical activity and cognitive development. If the phenomenologists are correct, there ought to be some sort of relationship between the development of the body and the development of the mind. If the traditional perspective is right (Ghost in the Machine; Mind in the Meat), there should be little or no relationship.

Physical Education and Cognitive Development

Studies of cognitive outcomes of Physical Education have mainly focused on the development of learning skills and academic performance associated with participation. Numerous authors have argued for transfer effects of Physical Education to other areas of the school curriculum, such as literacy and numeracy (Pirie, 1995), whilst others have suggested that physical activity stimulates the development of generic cognitive or learning skills (Barr and Lewin, 1994).

Empirical research into the cognitive outcomes of involvement in Physical Education, or more generally, physical activity, tend to fall into three categories:

1) studies of associations between Physical Education / physical activity and academic performance, such as in assessments;

2) studies of associations between physical activity and cognitive functioning;

3) studies of associations between Physical Education / physical activity and the improvement of other areas of the curriculum and basic skills, such as literacy, numeracy and thinking skills.

The classic study of the relationship between Physical Education and general school performance was carried out in France between 1951 and 1961 (Hervet, 1952). Researchers reduced ‘academic’ curriculum time by 26 per cent, replacing it with Physical Education, yet academic results did not worsen and there were fewer discipline problems, greater attentiveness and less absenteeism. Similarly, the Hindmarsh Project in Australia assessed the effects of a 14-week daily physical activity programme on a range of measures, including academic performance (Dwyer et al., 1983). Despite the loss of 45 to 60 minutes of classroom teaching time each day, there were no signs of an adverse effect on numeracy and literacy.

More recent studies have found small improvements for some children in academic performance when time for Physical Education is increased in their school day (Sallis et al., 1999; Shephard, 1996). A review of three large-scale studies found that academic performance is maintained and occasionally enhanced by an increase in a student’s levels of Physical Education, despite a reduction in the time for the study of academic material (Shephard, 1997). It has also been found that Physical Education and physical activity levels are higher in relatively high-performing than low-performing schools (Lindner, 2002). These findings should, however, be taken with some caution, as other studies found no relationship, or a trivial one, between participation in Physical Education and educational achievement (Melnick et al., 1988, 1992; Tremblay et al., 2000).

It might be the case that any improvement in academic performance following physical activity reflects changes in cognitive functioning, such as increases to blood flow in the brain, increased levels of arousal and stimulated brain development (Ratey and Hagerman, 2009). Cognitive function may also benefit indirectly from increased energy generation, as well as a break from sedentary, classroom-based work (Lindner, 1999). Whilst such changes have been associated with physical activity (Etnier et al., 1997), the subsequent link with school performance is equivocal, and further studies are required.

Some well-designed studies have found a positive relationship between increased physical activity and concentration (Caterino and Polak, 1999; Raviv and Low, 1990), and whilst most studies have tested the effects of short-term interventions, it has been suggested that effects are more likely to be sustained if physical activity is introduced over a long period of time (Etnier et al., 1997).

With regard to the third area of research, Physical Education / physical activity’s contributions to other areas of the curriculum, few robust studies have been undertaken to date. Much of the literature is taken with non-empirical papers that either extrapolate from parallels between movement and intellectual development in early childhood or promote movement-based practices as appealing alternatives to passive learning of concepts (Gildenhuys and Orsmond, 1996). Whilst it is plausible that physical activity helps generate empowering and relaxing contexts for learning (Daley, 1988), there is no satisfactory evidence to support the claim. For example, Keinänen et al. (2000) reviewed the small number of empirical studies of strategies using dance instruction to improve reading and non-verbal reasoning, but were unable to draw strong conclusions, because, despite generally positive findings, none ruled out alternative explanations for the effects. Likewise, Dismore and Bailey’s (2005) study of outdoor learning among Primary-aged students found improvements in a range of other curriculum areas, but the research was unable to discount confounding variables.

Some of the most enthusiastic support for the claim that there is a relationship between Physical Education / physical activity and cognitive benefits comes from small-scale studies, based on self-administered and self-evaluated designs (BBC News, 2001). Such studies ought not to be disregarded, but neither should they be used as the basis of bold assertions that increasing certain activities improves school performance. Of course, a causal relationship will always be difficult to establish, since to do so would require either withholding treatment from a group of children or somehow accounting for the wide range of confounding variables (Hills, 1998). Nevertheless, some studies have utilised large-scale, controlled experimental designs (Caterino and Polak, 1999; Raviv, 1990; Sallis et al., 1999; Shephard, 1996), and these might act as examples of workable approaches for future research.

One major omission from the existing literature is that which offers a coherent analytical framework for explaining possible effects associated with Physical Education / physical activity. Few studies have sought to explore the precise mechanisms that might cause cognitive benefits, or the ways in which different types of activity and different ways they are presented might initiate those mechanisms. These would seem to be good candidates for future research. The difficulty, as always, is that quality research is expensive and time-consuming. However, if policy makers and practitioners are going to really understand the relationship between Physical Education and cognition, such studies are vital.

Conclusions and cautions

Based on the available research evidence it seems safe to conclude that increased levels of Physical Education do not interfere with pupils’ achievement in other subjects (although the time available for these subjects is consequently reduced), and in some groups of students outcomes may be associated with improved academic performance. More clear positive evidence relates to relationships between physical activity and cognitive functioning, especially when sustained over a long period of time.

These findings warrant cautious optimism. However, there is a danger. Physical Education has a long and ignoble history of aligning itself to various instrumental bandwagons – social inclusion, crime reduction, weight management, sports performance and so on. Positive outcomes in each of these areas should be acknowledged and celebrated, but they should NOT become justifications for the subject. Physical Education should stop requiring more of itself than other subjects. The justification for the subject is its intrinsic merit, not its contribution to other areas. Physical Education offers students distinctively valuable experiences, and these experiences are all the more worthwhile because they are the only formal opportunity for young people to learn in, through and about their bodies. As philosophers like Dreyfus and Merleau-Ponty have made clear, we are our bodies and our bodies are us. To conceive of an education system that negates this understand is perverse, and will not serve the needs and interests of learners.


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This post is based on a chapter of a book written for UNESCO, and supported by the International Council for Sport Science and Physical Education.

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