The Effect of Aerobic Exercise on Cognition, Academic Achievement, and Psychosocial Function in Children

Parents are often concerned about their child’s activity level, as many children do not get enough physical activity or playtime. Regular physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise, has been shown to promote neurogenesis in the brain which in turn improves cognitive functioning and psychosocial well-being. In this blog post, we discuss the effect of aerobic exercise on cognition, academic achievement, and psychosocial functioning in children.

What does the literature say about aerobic exercise for children?

Lees & Hopkins (2013) conducted a thorough literature review on studies that examined aerobic exercise interventions for children. A total of 1,245 articles were found. After systematic review, Lee & Hopkins selected 8 studies that met their inclusion criteria of studying children less than 19 years of age and measured changes in mental health, behavior, or cognition. Studies were excluded that were not randomized-control trials, if the study focused on adoption of a physical activity program, or if the study only measured changes in health in regards to a disease state.


After selecting the 8 articles that matched their criteria, Lee & Hopkins (2013) found three interesting results of providing children with an aerobic exercise program.

  1. Children who participate in an aerobic exercise program do improve their academic performance. 
  2. Children who perform aerobic exercise for 20 minutes a session/3x a week report less depression and greater self-esteem than children who do not.
  3. Academic achievement benefits resulting from implementing an aerobic exercise program have been seen lasting 3 years in studies with young children.

The consensus among professionals is that regular exercise is beneficial for children. School systems often allocate more time to academic courses instead of physical education. In studies where schools have implemented aerobic exercise programs, Lees & Hopkins (2013) found that allocating time for children to participate in aerobic exercise does not detract from their studies and may actually help them perform better academically. More research is needed to understand the specific mechanisms of how aerobic exercise positively impacts children. However, examining existing studies in adults and in animal models show that aerobic exercise increases volume in key brain areas such as hippocampus, increases blood volume, and improves memory. 

How can I encourage my pediatric clients to exercise?

Work with your client and their family on identifying time to do physical activity. Have your client and their family share ideas of activities that they enjoy doing. Getting to and sticking with a physical activity regimen is easier when people choose activities that they enjoy doing. If your client or their family are new to exercising, have them try taking walks together as a family, going on jogs, or riding a bike in their neighborhood. Other potential activities that may be of interest are team sports, yoga, swimming, or hiking. You can also help your client learn more about why they should exercise here

Lees, C., & Hopkins, J. (2013). Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition, academic achievement, and psychosocial function in children: a systematic review of randomized control trials. Preventing chronic disease, 10, E174.
Dustin Luchmee

Dustin was HappyNeuron's Product Specialist. With research experience in stroke, Dustin learned how a stroke can change someone's life. He also learned how different kinds of therapists can work together to help a person get better. He is passionate about neuro-rehabilitation and finding the active ingredients for effective therapy.

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