Skip to content

Increased exercise could boost children’s cognitive skills, study suggests

Children who are fitter performed better than their peers in cognitive tasks, a new study found.

Children running
Children who ran furthest had better response times in tasks (Generic image)

Research by sports scientists at Nottingham Trent University showed that on average primary school pupils who were fitter – measured by those that ran the furthest on a fitness test – had better response times in tasks than those who did not run as far.

The study aimed to investigate the effect on children’s learning and memory following the ‘Daily Mile’, a school-based physical activity which is implemented in schools across the UK and sees pupils run or jog at their own pace, usually via laps of the playground or sports pitch.

Pupils aged nine to 11 undertook a series of cognitive function tasks following exercise and rest.

The cognitive tasks were attempted by pupils immediately after exercise and 45 minutes after exercise.

The researchers found that, while exercise did not improve cognition overall, executive function – a set of mental skills that includes working memory, flexible thinking and self-control – tended to improve immediately after exercise.

In addition, the pupils classed as most fit showed superior cognition to their peers, completing tasks on average 5-10% faster and just as accurately.

The study also explored children’s enjoyment of the Daily Mile, finding that they particularly liked the self-paced nature of the activity, the social aspect and the fact that it was outdoors.

“A consistent finding of our work was that the children who were able to run the furthest during the multi-stage fitness test displayed superior cognition to their counterparts,” said lead researcher Dr Simon Cooper, Associate Professor in Exercise, Cognition and Health in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology.

He said: Our work shows the importance of regular opportunities for physical activity in schools, not just for health and wellbeing but also cognition and academic achievement.

“The study also showed some really important evidence that young people enjoy taking part in the Daily Mile and enjoy the fact that they can exercise at their own pace and with friends. This suggests that The Daily Mile could be an effective and sustainable way to increase physical activity, and subsequently fitness, in children.”

Dr Joseph Lovett, Research Coordinator for The Daily Mile, said: “This study helps confirm what we experience first-hand, that children enjoy participating in The Daily Mile outside with their peers.

“The indication that fitter children demonstrate superior cognition is extremely encouraging. One of the core aims of the foundation is to give children the opportunity to enjoy regular physical activity to help improve fitness. The knowledge that improved fitness can improve cognitive ability is a hugely important message for us.”

The study is published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

  • Notes for editors

    Press enquiries please contact Dave Rogers, Public Relations Manager, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8782, or via email.

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) was named University of the Year 2019 in the Guardian University Awards. The award was based on performance and improvement in the Guardian University Guide, retention of students from low-participation areas and attainment of BME students.

    NTU was also the Times Higher Education University of the Year 2017, and The Times and Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2018. These awards recognise NTU for its high levels of student satisfaction, its quality of teaching, its engagement with employers, and its overall student experience.

    The university has been rated Gold in the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework – the highest ranking available.

    It is one of the largest UK universities. With over 37,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across four campuses, the University injects £1.6bn into the UK economy. It has been the largest recruiter of UK undergraduates in each of the last four years. With an international student population of more than 6,000 and an NTU community representing around 160 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook.

    The university is passionate about creating opportunities and its extensive outreach programme is designed to enable NTU to be a vehicle for social mobility. NTU is among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was awarded University of the Year in the UK Social Mobility Awards 2019.

Published on 6 October 2021
  • Subject area: Sciences including sport sciences
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Science and Technology