Moderate to vigorous exercise particularly appeared to help girls do better in science, a study by the universities of Strathclyde and Dundee found.
The “Children of the 90s” health study analysed the exercise and school studies of around 5,000 teenagers.
The duration and intensity of the children’s daily physical activity levels were measured for periods of between three and seven days, when they were aged 11, using a device called an accelerometer worn on an elasticated belt.
The accelerometer showed that the average daily number of minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise the 11-year-olds clocked up was 29 for boys and 18 for girls.
The children’s academic performance in English, maths, and science was then assessed at the ages of 11, 13 and 15 or 16.The analysis showed that better results across all three subjects was linked to the amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity undertaken at the age of 11.
Exams sat at 15 and 16 showed an increase in performance for every additional 17 minutes per day boys did and 12 minutes per day that girl spent doing intensive exercise at the age of 11.
The performance of girls in science subjects was particularly high among those who exercised regularly at 11, the report found.
The study was led by Dr Josephine Booth, from the University of Dundee, and Professor John Reilly, from Strathclyde University, in collaboration with teams from the Universities of Georgia and Bristol. It is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine and the authors said they will conduct further research to confirm their initial findings.
Dr Booth said the findings had implications for public health and education policy.
She said: “The current guidelines suggest that this age group should be doing at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily.
“Our study suggests a relationship between physical activity and academic attainment in young people. This suggests that physical activity is beneficial for more than just physical health and so young people have a further reason to aim to meet the guidelines.
“If moderate to vigorous physical activity does influence academic attainment this has implications for public health and education policy by providing schools and parents with a potentially important stake in meaningful and sustained increases in physical activity.”
Prof Reilly, of Strathclyde University’s school of psychological sciences and health, added: “Previous studies in animals have shown that higher levels of physical activity produce changes in the brain which are favourable to learning, notably changes in the chemicals – neurotransmitters and growth factors – which brain cells use to process information. In addition, other studies in children have shown that behavioural and brain-related changes result from physical activity which are favourable to learning.”
In a separate study of the same 11-year-olds, reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the Dundee/Strathclyde team showed that those with higher levels of physical activity at age 11 also paid better attention.
Prof Reilly said: “Children tend to focus better on tasks in class if they have been physically active. All of the above would predict that higher physical activity should produce improved academic attainment, but this had not been established by previous studies.”