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Fittest pupils performed best in cognitive tasks, study showed

Fitter pupils’ cognition was up to 20% better across a range of tasks compared to their less-fit peers, a study showed.

Children running
The fittest children showed superior ability across all of the cognitive function tests

Sports scientists at Nottingham Trent University found that on average the fittest youngsters aged 12-13 showed better attention, perception, memory and higher-level decision making and complex thinking when challenged.

As part of the study, the team was aiming to understand how a one-hour PE lesson – specifically football – might help to improve pupils’ performance in the classroom.

Using a series of cognitive tests before and after PE, the researchers found that working memory – the retention of small amounts of information – improved by about ten percent in pupils who spent more time performing moderate to vigorous activity.

During the study, however, they also observed that irrespective of the PE lesson the fittest children – measured by the distance covered during a shuttle running test on a separate day – showed superior ability overall across all of the cognitive function tests.

Their performance in attention, perception, memory and executive function tasks was on average between ten and 20 percent greater than their less-fit peers, achieving accuracy with faster response times.

The tests – undertaken by 76 pupils – measured concentration, the retention and detection of information, higher-level decision making and complex thinking, which the researchers argue are all crucial for the classroom.

“We found that fitter children performed particularly well across a range of measures considered important for academic achievement and performance in school,” said lead researcher Luke Gilbert from Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology.

He said: “Our study demonstrates the importance of fitness in young people. Furthermore, as PE is the only opportunity for many young people to undertake moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and develop their fitness, it further highlights the value and importance of PE.”

Nottingham Trent University researcher Dr Simon Cooper added: “This was the first study to look specifically at how a PE lesson might affect cognition, which is important considering that cognition affects the ability to learn and perform at school.

“The time allocated for PE in schools is sometimes reduced in favour of more academic subjects and this could be counterproductive for enhancing the achievement of pupils.

“While evidence shows physical activity positively affects cognitive function in young people, we know that the intensity, duration and type of activity are very important. For future work we’d like to understand more about how different types of PE might affect cognition, along with how PE could be optimised in terms of the potential cognitive benefits.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.

    The Research Excellence Framework (2021) classed 83% of NTU’s research activity as either world-leading or internationally excellent. 86% of NTU’s research impact was assessed to be either world-leading or internationally excellent.

    NTU was awarded The Times and The Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2023 and ranked University of the Year in the Whatuni Student Choice Awards 2023. It was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards), University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).

    NTU is the 5th largest UK institution by student numbers, with approximately 40,000 students and more than 4,400 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 7,000 and an NTU community representing over 160 countries.

    Since 2000, NTU has invested £570 million in tools, technology, buildings and facilities.

    NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2021 UCAS UG acceptance data). It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was the first UK university to sign the Social Mobility Pledge.

    NTU is ranked the second most sustainable university in the world in the 2022 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).

Published on 15 May 2023
  • Subject area: Sciences including sport sciences
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Science and Technology