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Short, self-paced physical activity breaks may help children learn better

Outdoor classroom breaks involving 15 minutes of self-paced physical activity may improve children’s attention, memory and wellbeing, research published in the open access journal BMC Medicine suggests.

A team of researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh, Stirling, and Highlands and Islands, United Kingdom, found that compared with 15 minutes of intense physical activity or spending time outside without exercising, children whose classroom break involved 15 minutes of self-paced running or walking had greater improvements in attention, memory and wellbeing. 

Dr Josie Booth, the corresponding author said: “Physical activity is believed to be beneficial to cognition and academic performance; however, the evidence for this in children is inconsistent. We aimed to examine the immediate impact of short physical activity breaks at school on children’s cognition and wellbeing and to determine whether any benefits from this activity were due to the intensity of physical activity or from just taking a break outside of the classroom. This activity was similar to the popular Daily MileTM initiative”. 

The authors used a citizen science approach in conjunction with the BBC Terrific Scientific to collect their data. Teachers at schools around the UK led pupils in three types of activity, each lasting 15 minutes; running or walking at the pupils’ own pace, intense running and being outside without exercising. 5,463 children with an average age of nine years old took part in the study. 

Immediately before and within 20 minutes after finishing each activity, children completed computer-based tasks to measure wellbeing and cognition, including memory and attention. Scores for wellbeing and cognitive tasks, including working memory, improved most after self-paced exercise compared to intense physical activity or no exercise. The effects of intense exercise and no exercise were similar, however children’s scores for alertness were lower after breaks involving no physical activity.

Children reported more positive moods after self-paced exercise than intense physical activity or no exercise. This improvement was found be partially responsible for the improved working memory associated with self-paced activity. Children who were more physically fit tended to have greater increases in alertness after self-paced exercise compared to less fit children.

Dr Colin Moran, one of the co-authors of the study said: “Schools, pupils, teachers and parents may worry that taking time out of lessons to do physical activity is not beneficial to classroom learning. However, the evidence shows that pupils are more alert, feel better, and pay better attention after self-paced physical activity when compared to just sitting”.

The authors caution that improvements to wellbeing and cognition were small and that their data did not take into account other factors that can affect wellbeing and cognition such as diet and sleep or other exercise done by children during their leisure time or while travelling to school. Further research should explore the influence of these factors on children’s wellbeing and cognition after physical activity breaks.


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Notes to editor:

1.    Research article:

“A citizen science study of short physical activity breaks at school: improvements in cognition and wellbeing with self-paced activity”
BMC Medicine 2020
DOI: 10.1186/s12916-020-01539-4

The article is available at the journal website.

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