Physical Education Performance Outcomes and Cognitive Function

Article excerpt


Another school year is about to begin and yet this one feels a little bit different as the media has brought the current obesity crisis and your responsibilities as a physical education teacher into the nation's living room. Your once marginalized physical education program has now been identified as a key part of addressing public health issues like childhood obesity and diabetes as well as federal mandates such as those affiliated with your school's wellness plan (Woods 8, Graber, 2007).

Despite this new sense of importance, there are still those who argue that while quality physical education programming has the capacity to prepare students to be active for a lifetime and indirectly improve cognitive performance, it fails to do so (Trost, 2006). Lack of accountability (Castelli & Rink, 2003), minimal moderate to vigorous physical activity during lessons (Coe, Pivarink, Womack, Reeves, & Malina, 2006), and an over-allocation of time to managerial tasks (McKenzie et al., 2006) have been identified as reasons why physical education has failed to have an impact on student health. Additionally, it has been suggested that many teachers are not critical consumers of scientific information that may be necessary to provide quality experiences (Trost, 2006). On a positive note, many of these present issues are methodology dependent and therefore can be overcome to produce physical and cognitive benefits in students (Fairclough & Stratton, 2006).

It has long been the belief of many physical educators that physical activity and resulting effects of its engagement (i.e., physical fitness, motor competence) can aid in the reduction of sedentary and risky behaviors as well as improve cognitive function such as academic achievement. The purpose of this article is to inform physical education teachers about the current research describing the relationship between physical education performance outcomes as identified by the national physical education standards (i.e., regular participation in physical activity, physical fitness, motor competence; National Association of Physical Education and Sport [NASPFI, 2004) and cognitive function (i.e., attention, memory, academic achievement). A secondary purpose will include suggestions for best practice.

Key Findings in the Research

In a recent publication in one of the top neuroscience journals, Dr. Usha Goswami (2006) discussed the relevance of cognitive neuroscience to education. Alarmingly, she pointed out that many of the present claims made by brain-based learning curricula materials are exaggerated because there is actually little empirical evidence to support a cause and effect relationship between enhanced cognitive function and other behaviors. Also, she suggested that many "neuromyths need to be eliminated" (Goswami, 2006, p. 3), as teachers may presently be adhering to recommendations that are based upon intuition rather than science (see Common Neuromyths list below). For instance, there is little truth to idea that people are either left or right brained. Indeed, we actually need both sides of our brain, because these hemispheres have different functions such as the left brain logically processing tasks while the right brain has a spatial manipulation and relationship orientation.

Common Neuromyths

1. People either have a left or right brain orientation.

2. Most students have just one learning style, which the teacher should focus on.

3. A commercially produced curriculum can enhance brain function for all learners.

4. You cannot teach an old dog new tricks or in educational terms, certain skills must be taught at a certain time or they will never be learned.

5. Physical activity will make you smarter.

Two other myths target curriculum and instructional practice by falsely suggesting that each student has a single learning style and that curriculum materials can magically meet the needs of all learners. …