We know that participating in sport and physical activity has benefits for health and wellbeing. New research, bringing together more than 100 studies from around the world, has found it also has a small positive effect on students’ academic performance, particularly in mathematics and science.
The University of Sydney and Australian Catholic University academics also concluded ‘sports participation during school hours was the most beneficial for academic performance’.
The research team carried out a systematic review and meta-analysis of existing data from 115 studies involving more than one million students, to assess the association between sport participation and academic performance among nine- to 18-year-olds. The findings have been published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Science (Owen et al., 2022).
The academics report a ‘moderate’ dose of sport participation had most benefit on academic outcomes. ‘Children who played sport for 1-2 [hours per week] had higher academic performance outcomes compared with children who played no sport or 3+ [hours per week],’ they write.
Commenting on the study findings, lead author Dr Katherine Owen says: ‘Previous research suggests kids’ involvement in sport could have benefits above and beyond general physical activity because of the complex skills involved, however no one has combined the evidence on sport and academic performance before.’
Discussing the impact of participation during school hours, the researchers say sport at school is likely to take place immediately before lessons, so this could have an effect on students’ attention and time on task.
‘We were also interested to see the main improvements were in maths and science subjects,’ Owen adds. ‘This is consistent with previous physical activity research suggesting skills learnt in sport, such as problem solving, are more commonly applied in maths and science subjects. However, it could also be due to gender differences, whereby boys tend to participate in sport at higher levels and boys also achieve higher grades in maths and science.’
The researchers acknowledge the limitations of their review and meta-analysis and say the results should be interpreted with caution. ‘Based on mostly low-quality studies, we found some evidence that sport could positively affect academic performance in children and adolescents,’ they conclude.
‘It appears that sport participation within the school environment and of a moderate dose could improve school-age children’s academic performance, particularly in mathematics and science.’ They argue that more research is needed. ‘If this field were to inform policy, high-quality studies are needed that provide insight into the effect of dose and sport characteristics on academic performance.’
Owen, K. B., Foley, B. C., Wilhite, K., Booker, B., Lonsdale, C., & Reece, L. J. (2022). Sport Participation and Academic Performance in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 54(2), 299-306. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000002786