Exercise as it relates to Disease/School-based Physical Education: The key to improving cognitive and academic performance among adolescents
Reviewed article: Ardoy DN, Fernandez-Rodriguez JM, Jimenez-Pavon D, Castillo R, Ruiz JR and Ortega FB. A Physical Education Trial Improves Adolescents' Cognitive Performance and Academic Achievement: The EDUFIT Study. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2014; 24:52-61. This critique was written as a submission for an assignment in the unit: Health, Disease and Exercise at the University of Canberra, August–September 2019.
What is the Background to this Research?
The benefits of physical activity on the development and health of adolescents is well established, however physical activity rates statistically decline during high school years. Through mandatory school-based physical education classes, students of all ages are encouraged to participate in semi-regular exercise in order to achieve nationally set guidelines.
In recent years, literature has shown a positive association between physical activity and academic performance, reporting adolescents who participate in regular school activities and co-curricular sport are more likely to achieve higher grades when compared to their sedentary peers. Nevertheless, the role of physical education on academic achievement and cognitive performance remains relatively disputed.
This study by Ardoy et al. sought to examine the effect of volume and intensity of physical education on adolescents’ cognitive performance and academic achievement and contribute to the existing literature with its preliminary findings.
Where is the Research From?
The research for this article was undertaken in Spain and supported by research grants from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation and Center Teachers and Resources Murica of Education, Training and Employment Murica Ministry. Resources for the study were also provided through two EU-funded studies: the HELENA Study and the ALPHA study. The article was published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports in 2014.
The authors of this study are from a number of tertiary institutions in both Spain and Sweden. They have backgrounds in the diverse areas of physical education and sport, biosciences and nutrition, education and psychology.
Several of the authors had published numerous articles in their respective areas of expertise.
What Kind of Research Was This?
This study was a group-randomised controlled trial which is considered to be the gold-standard of scientific research due to its limitation of bias and validity of determining a cause-effect relationship between an intervention group and a desired outcome. Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) involve randomly assigned participants to a control and intervention group. These groups are followed up after a set period of time and the results are compared to the hypothesis as defined in the outset of the study. Nevertheless, RCTs do have their limitations:
- Trials are often conducted on too few subjects or undertaken for too short a time period
- Most trials are funded by large research institutions
- They may produce “hidden bias” through imperfect randomisation
What Did the Research Involve?
67 adolescents between the age of 12 and 14 years were investigated over a four-month period to evaluate the effect of volume and intensity of physical education on cognitive performance and academic achievement. Three experimental groups were randomly allocated into a control group (CG), experimental group 1 (EG1) and experimental group 2 (EG2). CG group participated in regular PE sessions (two 55-minute sessions/week), EG1 received four sessions per week and EG2 undertook four high-intensity PE sessions/week (defined as achieving an average heart rate above 120bpm). As this study is group-randomised, the groups were randomised rather than the individual participant. Randomisation was also blinded for the assessors of the results. Academic achievement was assessed using student grades, however, teachers from each subject gave an additional average score on top of these grades based on student behaviour, attitude, homework, skills and knowledge as required by the Spanish curriculum. The baseline results were compared against the same testing criteria during the follow-up phase.
- Mixed gender and age cohort: The maturity and developmental differences between the categories may have had a significant impact on the cohesiveness of the intervention. These age and gender differences within the respective cohorts were not well controlled.
- The assessors conducted irrelevant pre-intervention testing which did not justify how sexual maturation equated to mental maturation. Arguably, mental maturation has a greater influence on results.
- Short study duration: a 4-month period is arguably inadequate to assess academic progress, particularly among a heterogeneous group of adolescents.
- Sample size of 67 students reflects a small statistical power
- The experimental method was presented logically and results are displayed appropriately
- Results were mathematically balanced for possible baseline differences
- Data was collected for both cognitive performance and academic achievement
These limitations resulted in a lack of control and execution within the study leaving it open to bias and compromising the interpretation of meaningful results.
What were the Basic Results?
The study found the following key results:
- Physical education classes do not compromise academic performance
- Increasing the volume and intensity of PE sessions per week has a positive effect on academic achievement and cognitive performance
- High intensity physical education is associated with the most improvement in cognitive performance and academic achievement
These test results are prone to over-emphasis and interpretation highlighted by Ardoy et al. in his reference to separate literature suggesting other plausible underlying methods that may have yielded the intended results.
What Conclusions Can We Take From this Research?
Overall, this study had numerous limitations that effected the meaningfulness and power of its results. However, Ardoy et al.’s research does present some preliminary findings, adding to the literature and allowing future avenues of more extensive research.
Future studies should endeavour to increase the duration of the trial as well as aim to create precise cohorts in order to procure more accurate and reliable findings. Furthermore, more research should be conducted into the underlying mechanisms that support Ardoy et al.’s study, perhaps conclusively determining the effect of physical activity alone on academic achievement and cognitive performance.
As the link between physical education and academics remains disputed, it is notable to highlight the importance of physical activity on the development and health of adolescents. Although there may be no definitive correlation between physical education and academic results, high-school students should be encouraged to participate in regular physical activity by virtue of its positive health and developmental connotations.
For further resources regarding physical education and adolescents please access the links below:
- The Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation
- Top 5 Reasons Why Physical Education is As Important As Schoolwork
- Why Is Exercise Important to Teenagers?
- Australia's 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Young People
- Ardoy D. N. et al. A Physical Education trial improves adolescents’ cognitive performance and academic achievement: the EDUfit study. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2014. 24:52-61
-  Shen, B. Physical Education and Academic Performance in Urban American Girls. Urban Education. 2011. Vol 52(2):267-283
- Singh, A. et al. Physical Activity and Performance at School: A Systematic Review of the Literature Including a Methodological Quality Assessment. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. 2012.166(1):49-55
- Greenhalgh, T. 2001. How to Read a Paper. London, UK: BMJ Publishing Group.
- Kendal, J. Designing a Research Project: Randomised Controlled Trials and Their Principles. Emergency Medicine Journal. 2003. 20(2):164-168
- Riegelman, R. K. ‘Studying a Study & Testing a Test’. Washington, D.C: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2005.
- Rasberry, C. Lee, S. Robin, L. Laris, B. Russell, L. Coyle, K. Nihiser, A. The association between school-based physical activity, including physical education and academic performance: a systemaic review of the literature. Prev Med. 2011. 52(1):10-20
- Smith, L. Thelen, E. Titzer, R. McLin, D. Knowing in the context of acting: the task dyamics of the A-not-B-error. Psychol Rev. 1999. 106: 235-260
- Sallis, J. Prochaska, J. Taylor, W. A review of correlates of physical activity of children and adolescents. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2000. 32(5):963-75