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The Contributions of Physical Activity

This is an excerpt from Schoolwide Physical Activity by Judith Rink,Tina Hall & Lori Williams.

While awareness of the importance of physical activity to health has certainly increased, what most people do not understand is how important physical activity is to the well-being of children and youth in areas other than health. Although these contributions may not receive as much press, they are equally important.

Growth and Development

Children and adolescents are growing and developing as physical beings. Regular physical activity is essential to their growth and development. Regular physical activity helps build strong bones and muscles, helps control weight, and may play a major role in improving blood pressure and cholesterol levels (NASPE, 2008). Strong bones develop as a result of weight-bearing activities and those that stress the bones. Active children have a higher bone mass and are less likely to have problems (osteoporosis) later in life. The development of all systems of the body is affected by the level of physical activity of children and adolescents.

Social and Emotional Well-Being

Play is an important human behavior. While the forms of play change throughout the life span, the need for playful activity does not. There is evidence that motor skills used in play and learned early in life enhance a child's ability to participate in activities later in life (Malina, 1996). Physical play is a critical contributor to the development of children's social skills and the well-being of adults. Elementary schools that have eliminated recess (see chapter 6), as well as home environments that do not provide children opportunities to go out and play, deprive students not only of the opportunity to be physically active but also of the opportunity to develop the social skills they will need as an adult.

Physical play is important to our emotional well-being. Studies show that regular physical activity in childhood and adolescence reduces stress and improves self-esteem. We are physical beings, and as such we need to move. Each culture has accepted forms of play. Children who do not learn to participate in the accepted forms of play of their culture are at a disadvantage socially as children and later as adults. Such learning not only takes care of our physical body but also facilitates emotional well-being.

Cognitive Functioning and Academic Performance

A common misperception of educators is that if they take time out to provide students with the physical activity they need, the students will not do well academically. Actually there is more and more evidence that physical activity enhances cognitive functioning (Castelli et al., 2007); time spent in increased physical activity during the school day does not decrease academic performance but instead actually increases it (Dwyer et al., 1983; Sallis et al., 1999; Shephard, 1997; Strong et. al., 2005). Children need breaks from sedentary activity. Physical activity is a great medium for learning other content areas and should be used to actually teach academic content. When physical activity is provided for children during the school day, they are more attentive and teachers have fewer behavior problems (Pellegrini, Huberty, & Jones, 1995; Strong, et al., 2005).

Beginning research with adolescent-aged students also indicated that students who participated in vigorous activity for at least 20 minutes three times a week had higher grades (Sibley & Etnier, 2003; Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005; Tremblay, Inman, & Williams, 2000). Higher grades are attributed to the increased attention that students have when they are not bored and not forced to spend an entire day in sedentary activities.

Factors That Affect Physical Activity

There are many factors that affect the level of physical activity of children and adolescents. Where you live, whether you are a girl or a boy, how old you are, what race you are, your socioeconomic status, whether you are successful in physical activities, and whether you enjoy your physical education class all affect your level of participation in physical activity. The following list summarizes these relationships (USDHHS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997, available online at

  • Girls are less active than boys.
  • Older children are less active than younger children.
  • Black older students are less active than white students.
  • Students who have confidence in their physical abilities are more active.
  • Students who perceive the benefits of physical activity as positive (fun, learning new skills, social interaction, and so on) are more active.
  • Students with active parents are more active.
  • Students who have convenient access to places to be active are more active.

These factors have been used to formulate recommendations for developing school and community programs to increase physical activity and particular efforts to target specific at-risk groups of young people. As you learn more about what constitutes a good physical activity program in the school, you will recognize deliberate efforts to use these ideas to develop both policy and programs.

Learn more about Schoolwide Physical Activity.

More Excerpts From Schoolwide Physical Activity