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Can P.E. Make Kids Smarter?

Physical activity is crucial not only for a child’s health, but for academic performance as well, reveals research by associate professor and Longhorn Game Changer Darla Castelli.

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“Sit still and pay attention.”

It has been a common refrain in classrooms for years, and for a long time there was nothing wrong with that. These days, however, physical education programs are routinely being slashed by ever tightening school budgets. As a result, sitting still may be doing more harm than good to children’s physical and cognitive health.

In response to this trend, UT Austin researchers led by Darla Castelli, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education and a top national expert on physical education, are studying children’s physical activity and its effects on cognitive health, brain health, behavior and academic performance.

Carla Castelli, physical education and cognitive health expert at The University of Texas at Austin

Darla Castelli 

According to Castelli, “There’s substantial scientific proof that physical activity improves children’s physical health and offers health benefits that continue through adulthood. But that fact hasn’t been quite compelling enough for most states to require that schools carve out adequate physical education and activity time each day.”

Determined to reverse this attitude toward the importance of physical education and activity Castelli and her team employed many methods of testing. One example compares brain scan readings after 20 minutes of sitting versus 20 minutes of walking.

The results showed that sitting still isn’t so great for classroom performance after all.

“Brain scans revealed that cognitive functioning improved in children who were active and who were allowed to return to resting intensities before they undertook the cognitive tasks,” says Castelli. “The more vigorous the physical activity and the more time spent above the target heart zone, the greater the gains in cognitive performance and the more accurately and quickly they completed cognitive exercises. This research suggests that it is very important to provide children with opportunities to be physically active during the school day.”

Not only can regular physical activity during the school day improve a child’s cognitive health, it can also help reverse the nationwide trend in American youth of higher body mass index, high blood pressure and low aerobic capacity.

Castelli hopes her findings will help bring physical education back to the status of “absolutely essential.”

“It’s been proven that sitting and doing nothing is terrible for our bodies,” says Castelli. “That includes the brain. With the data we now have, I’m hopeful that parents and communities will speak up and demand that adequate amounts of high-quality physical education be part of every single school day. The fact is that the quality of a child’s academic work in all of the other classes depends on it.”

Castelli will be honored as a Longhorn Game Changer at this Saturday’s football game against BYU. Keep an eye out for this clip on the video scoreboard:


Additional reporting by Kay Randall (Know: Moving for a Better Mind).


University of Texas at Austin medical research



This story is part of our yearlong series “In Pursuit of Health,” covering medical news and research happening across the university.