Associations between physical activity, self-regulation and educational outcomes in childhood

New research from the University of Cambridge highlights the benefits of physical activity for emotional regulation and attainment, particularly amongst those from lower socio-economic groups.

Previous studies have highlighted the benefits of physical activity on wider aspects of children and young people’s lives. The latest research from the University of Cambridge has found that there is a positive, indirect relationship between physical activity and attainment due to the impact on factors such as self-control. This is of particular importance for children from families who find it more challenging to access opportunities outside of school.

Overall this research found that children who engaged in more physical activity had better emotional regulation, they suffered fewer mood swings and emotional outbursts. However no impact on behavioural regulation was found.

When low socio-economic status was factored in the relationship was lost, this suggests that the relationship between physical activity and self-regulation is being shaped by wealth and advantage. It may be reflecting that those from lower socio-economic groups have fewer opportunities to engage in sport and physical activity outside of school as well as lacking safe, open spaces for games and exercise.

Overall, the research suggests that activities which influence emotional control, such as those involving teamwork, are particularly important in early childhood as they help shape behavioural control which can be more important as children age.

Ultimately physical activity can bring extra added value to those who may experience it less, such as those from lower socio-economic groups. One of the authors, Michelle Ellefson, highlights the importance of providing opportunities to be active for these children, ““Even giving children less-structured opportunities to run around outside could be of real developmental importance…We really need to ensure that physical activity does not become an area schools feel they can legitimately sacrifice to drive up academic attainment. It has a crucial part to play."

Published June 2021