SHE Foundation - "la Caixa" Foundation
Promoting physical activity improves intellectual performance


Marina has made an agreement with her son Javier that he will not go to football practice until he finishes his final exams because the boy is a little behind on his studies. After a few days, she starts to wonder if she made the right decision. She sees that her son is anxious, scatter-brained and that he doesn’t focus on his studies. Could it be because it has been hours since he has moved from that chair?

That is very likely to be the case, because among many other benefits, it has been demonstrated that exercise helps combat anxiety and increases brain performance. Faced with the fear that promoting physical exercise in children and teenagers might take away hours of study from other classes, multiple investigations looked for the relationship between hours dedicated to sports and to school. They reached the paradoxical conclusion that performance does not worsen when more hours are dedicated to physical activity, but quite the contrary; physical active children got better results on average than sedentary children on tests on perception, memory, intelligence, verbal ability and Maths.

Physical activity also helps keep the brain in top shape

The studies that analyse cognitive improvements concur with the idea that exercising has an effect on two basic areas of the brain: the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus is a small region of the brain that carries out important functions such as aerospace orientation and memory consolidation. By doing aerobic exercise, it is possible to see the creation of new neurons and neural networks, which explains its beneficial effects on long-term memory in the healthy and above all in those suffering from Alzheimer’s. The prefrontal cortex is also very much involved in cognitive improvement. It is the part of the brain that is above the eyes and where your working memory is; short-term memory that allows us to keep multiple pieces of data in our thoughts simultaneously, such as taking a Maths test, for example.

How much time exercising is enough for you to notice an improvement?

Not much, if we keep in mind that most of the time we are sitting, working, studying or performing other tasks. The WHO recommends that children and teenagers spend at least 60 minutes per day doing vigorous physical activity. Curiously, the effect that sports have on intellectual performance is more pronounced in children over seven years old and at the start of adolescence than in children between seven and ten years old and those above fourteen. Although the reasons are unknown, it could be related to the fact that at these ages, the brain undergoes more rapid growth. In any case, the benefits of physical activity for intellectual performance are not limited to the ages of growth but rather they also have a positive effect on the adult population.

What is the best sport for increasing attention?

It doesn’t matter much what type of activity you choose as long as your child maintains a good heart rate and does it regularly. Even so, some studies show that group sports, such as football or basketball, are more advantageous when it comes to increasing attention performance. In a test carried out by the Catholic University of Valencia, they analysed the practice of sports and the attention level of children at a public school in Valencia and on the other hand children of the Valencia Football Club. The latter underwent three planned hour-and-a-half training sessions three days per week and they also played a game every week. On the other hand, the public school children did sports-related activities or physical education classes that required less than five hours per week. Looking at the results, it was seen that the children involved in a group sport, when subjected to tasks in differentiating stimuli, got results up to 25% greater than the children who exercised individually and for less than an hour.

Now we know that doing exercise, apart from being fundamental to the body’s health, is highly recommended for the mind. So much so that finally Marina decided that Javier would attend football training because her motherly instinct told her that her child needed it in spite of academic requirements. Upon returning, after a shower and a good afternoon snack, Javier went back to his studies with more enthusiasm and dedication than before.

You will find more information in the publication on “Physical activity and health in childhood and adolescence” by the Ministry of Health and Consumption.