Objective evidence that active kids do better at school

Children playing football

Recent studies have suggested that physical activity helps children to do better at their studies.  Some of these studies have been hampered by difficulties with reliably measuring the amount of activity that actually goes on.  Others have been limited by a short duration or small sample size.  And all have been hampered by the possible role of confounding variables:  it could be, for example, that wealthier households encourage both studiousness and more physical activity!

So, we were excited when the media picked up on a large cohort study that used accelerometers to measure physical activity in an objective way, and correlated it with subsequent academic performance, up to five years later.  Here’s our take on it.


face drawn in cream on pregnant belly

The children were enrolled in the study by their mothers before birth, so the researchers were able to take gestational and socio-economic factors into account.

The participants were children who had been recruited into a long-term cohort study.

At age 11, the children had their level of physical activity measured.  This was done by getting them to wear an accelerometer for a week.  Physical activity was expressed as the amount of time doing moderate or vigorous physical activity (% MVPA).

Their level of physical activity was compared with their academic attainment at ages 11, 13 and 16.  Adjustments were made for known confounders such as age, birth weight and other gestational and socio economic factors.

Children with mental health problems or special educational needs were excluded.


A girl gets a good exam result

Children who did more exercise at age 11 were doing better academically at age 16

Data were obtained for 4,755 of the 11,952 eligible participants.  The  average amount of time doing moderate or vigorous activity was 8% for males and 5% for females.

Overall, physical activity at age 11 was found to predict higher academic achievement in both boys and girls.  However, the association was less clear in the fully adjusted model that took account of a host of other possible explanations, particularly so in Maths.

There was some evidence of a dose-response relationship.


  • A strength of this study is the use of an objective measure of physical activity
  • Not all of the study participants agreed to take part, and of those that did, 85% completed the study
  • As this is an observational study, we can’t prove causation.  There could be another factor at play that wasn’t fully accounted for in the adjusted analysis.


Booth JN, Leary SD et al.  Associations between objectively measured physical activity and academic attainment in adolescents from a UK cohort.   Br J Sports Med doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-092334.