The Benefits of Physical Activity and Exercise in the Classroom


A teacher leads her young students in a classroom stretch break.Experts agree that when children get about 60 minutes of movement a day, they enjoy improved physical and mental health and academic performance. Unfortunately, the latest statistics show most kids in the United States get nowhere near that goal, missing out on the benefits of physical activity. 

Teachers can help improve those statistics. They occupy a unique position of influence in a child’s life. By getting their students moving while building a positive learning environment and teaching valuable life skills, educators can inspire their students to exercise in the classroom and live active healthier lives.

Teachers can learn how to incorporate physical activity and social-emotional learning opportunities into the classroom with the Social Emotional Learning Through Sports and Physical Education course from Fresno Pacific University. Participants in the course explore many physical activity opportunities available to their students and encourage a less sedentary lifestyle.

“Educators should take this course because Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is critically important in today's schools and classrooms,” said Bill Cockerham, Ph.D., the course instructor. “This is also true for the athletic field or physical education gymnasium. Students will learn how to create and support an environment that promotes SEL principles.”

With the course, teachers also earn professional development credits applicable to earning a Social Emotional Learning certificate.

The Lack of Physical Activity Is Growing

According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), experts estimate less than 24% of children between the ages of six and 17 in the United States participate in 60 minutes of physical activity per day.

At school, time spent in physical education has been reduced in recent years, and some activities are no longer done out of safety concerns. The CDC reports that in 2017, only 51.7% of high school students attended physical education classes in an average week, and only 29.9% did so daily.

Those are important issues to address because routine physical activity is tied to so many good health outcomes.

The Benefits of Physical Activity

Getting active and moving more during the day helps students in a variety of ways. 

Physical Benefits

In a guide for classrooms, the CDC reports that regular physical activity helps children maintain cardiorespiratory fitness, build strong bones and muscles and control weight. It also can reduce the risk of developing heart conditions, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

Mental Health Benefits

The benefits of physical activity don’t stop with physical health. According to the CDC, getting more active can also help children better control their anxiety and depression, as well as increase self-esteem. Studies also have shown that routine exercise proves especially beneficial for students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, including an association with reduced use of medications.

Learning Benefits

Physical activity also leads to better students. When they routinely exercise, the CDC reports that students in the classroom

  • Improve concentration and ability to stay on-task in the classroom
  • Reduce disruptive behavior, such as fidgeting
  • Improve their motivation and engagement in the learning process
  • Improve their academic performance, getting higher grades and test scores.

What Teachers Can Do

Teachers can find many resources through the CDC and online sites created by teachers that offer strategies to get kids moving in class. Some of these ideas include

  • Movement-based learning stations. Students stand, walk and move around at these stations while learning.
  • Ball-toss spelling. Students toss a ball to each other for each letter in a word.
  • Morning Motion Movement. Integrating a series of light exercises into the morning routine, such as yoga or Pilates
  • Nature Walks
  • Dancing to popular songs
  • Creative workstations. These desks offer students the ability to move, including desks with pedal stations or seats that swivel.

The CDC, SHAPE America, the National Academy of Medicine and other national organizations also offer advice for schools in helping children reach 60 minutes of physical activity every day. They include these guidelines. 

  • Do not replace physical education/recess with classroom physical activity
  • Integrate physical activity into planned academic instruction to reinforce academic concepts
  • Provide physical activity, such as physical activity breaks, outside of planned academic instruction
  • Ensure that barriers to classroom physical activity, such as lack of equipment or available space, are minimized
  • Do not withhold classroom physical activity from students as a disciplinary approach
  • Physical activities should include all students, regardless of ability

Tying Physical Activity to Social-Emotional Learning

While the FPU course provides teachers with ideas on engaging activities to get students moving, it also gives them strategies to help students build SEL skills.

These skills set students up for life-long success. They include developing a growth mindset, honing the ability to focus, regulating emotions, setting goals and learning the importance of preparation and practice.

Teachers also learn SHAPE America's national standards and grade-level outcomes for K-12 physical education that define what is considered a “physically literate” student. Those standards include exhibiting responsible personal and social behavior that respects self and others, a centerpiece of SEL. 

Other standards include competency in various motor skills and movement patterns; applying knowledge of concepts, principles, strategies and tactics related to movement and performance. Taken together, these competencies demonstrate the knowledge and skills to achieve and maintain a health-enhancing level of physical activity and fitness. 

Cockerham noted that Fresno Pacific University's professional development courses allow teachers to “implement what you learn in your course today into your classroom tomorrow.” The course offers teachers the chance to learn stress-reduction techniques for both themselves and their students.

Other courses that address physical activity include teaching Lifetime Fitness, Active Bodies, Healthy Minds and Walking For Fitness. 


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