sport in schools

One excellent reason we should celebrate putting sport before maths

As students resume school and summer sport, new research from the University of Sydney shows a positive link between participation in sport and academic performance, with the strongest association when sport is held during school hours.

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. 

There has been a mass of conflicting evidence. We wanted to see where the gaps were.

Our research team from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, Katherine Owen, Bridget Foley, Katrina Wilhite, Bridget Booker, Chris Lonsdale and Lindsey Reece reviewed, combined and analysed the results of 115 studies conducted worldwide (majority in the United States) with a total of more than one million students aged between about nine and 18 years.

We found  overall sports participation had a small positive effect on academic performance, but the relationship was strengthened when the sport was conducted during school hours and at a moderate dose of around one to two hours a week.

The study is published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Science.

We think we are seeing this link because the sport is taking place immediately before the academic lessons and therefore could have an immediate effect on children’s attention and time on task; but we’d need larger, more comprehensive experimental studies to confirm that. We were also interested to see the main improvements were in maths and science subjects.

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.

Skills developed through sport such as problem-solving can be transferred to classroom learning. One possible explanation is that this is more likely to be transferred to the classes where such problem-solving is more likely to take place. There is evidence which says boys participate in sport at a greater level than girls and boys still do better at STEM subjects. This sporting gender difference and STEM subject difference may explain how sport was more beneficial for maths and science subjects in our research.

Under the Australian curriculum, students in years K-10 participate in a minimum of 150 minutes of planned physical activity across the school week. This time includes planned, weekly sport, although the amount of time spent in organised sport is not dictated. 

Schools are also encouraged to provide Years 11 and 12 students weekly access to a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate activity, including some vigorous physical activity and sport.

Our key findings:

  • Sport participation had a small positive effect on academic performance.
  • Sport participation during school hours was even more beneficial for academic performance, compared to sport outside school hours.
  • Sport participation was most beneficial for academic performance when at a moderate dose (one-to-two hours/week), compared with no sport or at a high dose (more than three hours/week). 
  • Sport participation was more beneficial for mathematics and science grades, compared to English and language grades. 

We acknowledge some limitations to the study, namely that most of the studies assessed were of a low quality, often because of poor sampling or inconsistent measures of sport participation. But we argue that the results of the review highlight the need for more high-quality research in this area.

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.”

But  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.

Katherine Owen has a PhD in physical activity and Masters in Biostatistics. She is currently working within the Prevention Research Collaboration and SPRINTER (Sport and Active Recreation Intervention & Epidemiology Research) group at the University of Sydney. She specialises in sport, physical activity, education and public health.She had a particular interest in the educational benefits of sport.