The fittest young people show superior ability in all cognitive tasks


A study showed that the most fit pupils’ perceptions were up to 20% better across a range of tasks than their less fit peers.

The study: The fittest young adults show superior ability in all cognitive tasks
The fittest children showed superior ability on all tests of cognitive function. Image credit: Nottingham Trent University

Sports scientists at Nottingham Trent University found that, on average, younger 12-13 year olds show higher level of attention, cognition, memory, decision making and complex reasoning when faced with a challenge.

As part of the study, the team aimed to understand how a one-hour PE lesson – particularly soccer – could help improve pupils’ performance in class.

Using a series of cognitive tests before and after PE, the researchers found that working memory — retaining small amounts of information — improved by about 10% in pupils who spent more time performing a moderate-to-vigorous activity.

During the study, they also noted that regardless of the physical education lesson, the most fit children—as measured by distance traveled during the shuttle run test on a separate day—showed superior ability overall on all tests of cognitive function.

Their performance on attention, cognition, memory, and executive function tasks was on average between 10 and 20 percent greater than that of their less fit counterparts, achieving accuracy with faster response times.

The tests — taken by 76 pupils — measured concentration, information retention and discovery, higher-level decision-making, and complex thinking, all of which the researchers say are essential for the classroom.

We found that fit children perform particularly well across a range of measures that are important for academic achievement and performance in school,”

Principal Investigator Luke Gilbert, Nottingham Trent University School of Science and Technology.

He said: Our study demonstrates the importance of physical fitness in young adults. Moreover, since PE is the only opportunity for many young people to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity and develop their physical fitness, it also highlights the value and importance of PE. “

This was the first study to look specifically at how a physical education lesson affects cognition, which is important since cognition affects the ability to learn and perform in school.

Reducing the time for physical education in schools is sometimes done in favor of more academic subjects and this can be counterproductive to enhancing pupils’ achievement.

While evidence shows that 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 would like to understand more about how different types of PE affect cognition, along with how PE might improve in terms of potential cognitive benefits. “

Dr Simon Cooper, researcher at Nottingham Trent University


Journal reference:

Gilbert, LM, et al. (2023) Effects of a game-based physical education lesson on cognitive function in adolescents. Frontiers in Psychology.


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