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Effects of a physical education intervention on cognitive function in young children: randomized controlled pilot study

Abigail Fisher1, James ME Boyle3, James Y Paton2, Phillip Tomporowski4, Christine Watson5, John H McColl6 and John J Reilly2*

Author affiliations

1 Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, 1-19, Torrington Place, London, WC1E 6BT, UK

2 Unit of Lifecourse Nutrition and Health, University of Glasgow, Yorkhill Hospitals, Dalnair Street, Glasgow, G3 8SJ, UK

3 School of Psychological Sciences & Health, University of Strathclyde, George Street, Glasgow, G1 1QE, UK

4 Department of Kinesiology, University of Georgia, 115 Ramsey Center, Athens, GA 30602, USA

5 Education Department, Glasgow City Council, 25 Cochrane Street, Glasgow, G1 1HL, UK

6 Department of Statistics, University of Glasgow, University Gardens, Glasgow, G12 8QQ, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Pediatrics 2011, 11:97  doi:10.1186/1471-2431-11-97

Published: 28 October 2011



Randomized controlled trials (RCT) are required to test relationships between physical activity and cognition in children, but these must be informed by exploratory studies. This study aimed to inform future RCT by: conducting practical utility and reliability studies to identify appropriate cognitive outcome measures; piloting an RCT of a 10 week physical education (PE) intervention which involved 2 hours per week of aerobically intense PE compared to 2 hours of standard PE (control).


64 healthy children (mean age 6.2 yrs SD 0.3; 33 boys) recruited from 6 primary schools. Outcome measures were the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Battery (CANTAB), the Attention Network Test (ANT), the Cognitive Assessment System (CAS) and the short form of the Connor's Parent Rating Scale (CPRS:S). Physical activity was measured habitually and during PE sessions using the Actigraph accelerometer.


Test- retest intraclass correlations from CANTAB Spatial Span (r 0.51) and Spatial Working Memory Errors (0.59) and ANT Reaction Time (0.37) and ANT Accuracy (0.60) were significant, but low. Physical activity was significantly higher during intervention vs. control PE sessions (p < 0.0001). There were no significant differences between intervention and control group changes in CAS scores. Differences between intervention and control groups favoring the intervention were observed for CANTAB Spatial Span, CANTAB Spatial Working Memory Errors, and ANT Accuracy.


The present study has identified practical and age-appropriate cognitive and behavioral outcome measures for future RCT, and identified that schools are willing to increase PE time.

Trial registration number

ISRCTN70853932 ( webcite)