Do Physical Education Programs Hinder Academic Performance?


Written by David Geier MD, AOSSM Public Relations Chair

For a number of reasons, physical education programs in U.S. schools seem to be in a state of decline. In the current economic climate, government funding for education programs has decreased, so physical education programs have often been cut. Also, with schools needing to demonstrate success academically, teachers and administrators frequently worry about any activity that pulls students out of the classroom.

But do physical education classes really hinder a student’s academic performance? It has been suggested that physically fit children are not only healthier, but they perform better on standardized academic tests.

A novel approach

Mitchell Elementary School, an underprivileged school in Charleston, South Carolina wanted to be proactive and find a way to maintain academic performance without sacrificing physical activity.Their school nurse, Glennis Randazzo, applied for grants that would fund education and equipment through the PE4Life program. The school partnered with physicians at the Medical University of South Carolina to study the success of the program. Dr. Carly Scahill, a pediatrics resident at MUSC and one of the study’s lead authors, was also involved in the program. Prior to implementation of the new program, students underwent 40 minutes of physical education class per week. It increased to 40 minutes, five days per week under the new program, with the goal of combining physical activity and intellectual stimulation.

Stressing both physical and mental exercise

The younger children performed developmentally appropriate activities during the program, like riding scooters while being asked to trace shapes with their movement. Older children performed more active and intellectually challenging activities like practicing multiplication while climbing a rock wall. For example, if a student’s left foot was on a “two” and left hand was on a “four,” then he would reach his hand to number eight.

Academic results

Schools administer the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test each fall. Prior to the new physical exercise program, only 55% of students achieved their spring test goals. After a year in the program, 68.5% of students met their goals.

Next steps

Increased time for physical activity doesn’t have to mean less time to learn; it’s just learning in a new format. So what is next? Do we wait and hope that more schools try it? Dr. Scahill wants to expand the scope of the study, matching two schools based on demographics and academic performance and seeing if a school that utilizes the program would outscore the ones that did not. More longitudinal data would also be helpful to determine if these programs apply to students at all levels.

What are your thoughts on the program? Can PE help improve test scores?