Physical Fitness, the Brain and Active Learning in the Classroom

The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, summer vacation is right around the corner and across the nation, educators, students and learning environments are lacing up and heading outside for National Physical Fitness and Sports Month!

As an initiative started by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, every May, the council encourages you to get up and get moving, to increase your physical fitness and to live a healthier life. From National Bike to School Day to Senior Health and Fitness Day, spend this May enjoying and encouraging a more active lifestyle — your body will love you for it!

Now, we all know that living a more active lifestyle is good for you (it’s healthy to be healthy), but did you know that physical activity in an educational environment dramatically increases student learning and retention?

Physically active students:

  • Are 20% more likely to earn a top grade in Math and English
  • Have standardized test scores increase by 6% over 3 years
  • See a 21% decrease in a teacher’s need to use time managing behavior

After 20 minutes of physical activity, students tested better in reading, spelling and math, and were more likely to read above their grade level.

After being in a physically active after school program for 9 months, student memory tasks improved by 16%.

How Does Physical Activity Affect the Brain?

For years, health professionals around the globe have researched and documented how important physical activity is for developing and maintaining a healthy brain, with the majority of neuroscientists agreeing that physical activity and a healthy diet is the best way to maintain brain health throughout a lifetime. According to Christopher Bergland of Psychology Today, physical activity, among other things, improves brain health by:

  1. Increasing blood flow, which improves cerebrovascular health.
  2. Releasing neurotrophic factors like BDNF, which stimulates the growth of new neurons.
  3. Activating the benefits of glucose and lipid metabolism, which bring nourishment to the brain.

But that’s not all. In studies conducted at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researchers found that physical activity is also associated with improved white matter integrity, stating that physical activity improved the white matter integrity of physically fit children aged 9 to 10. As the study says:

Aerobic fitness is positively related to the microstructure of white matter fiber tracts in the brain during childhood. Higher fit 9- and 10-year-old children (>70th percentile VO2max) showed greater FA in sections of the corpus callosum, corona radiata, and superior longitudinal fasciculus, compared to lower fit children (<30th percentile VO2max). (Chaddock-Heyman, et al.)

Which, for all the non-neuroscientists out there, means that an active lifestyle increases the integrity of white matter in the brain.

But what is white matter?


You could refer to it as the subway of the brain – connecting different regions of grey matter in the cerebrum to one another. Imagine living in a city and having to walk from one area to another 5 miles away; transport makes this much more fluent and helps make your tasks easier. This is pretty much the same for your brain!

White matter is fast. This is thanks to the electrically insulating myelin sheaths (formed by glial cells) encasing each neuron’s process transmitting signals to other neurons. Nervous transmissions are quick, meaning regions of grey matter can connect and keep in contact with one another. ... Similar to a subway, the white matter mostly remains deeper underneath the surface with its many links and passages. (Balm.)

By increasing physical activity in students, you’re strengthening the integrity of their brain’s white matter, which increases communication and speed, directly improving learning, retention and cognitive function.

Combining Fitness and Learning

With the research eyeing every classroom up and down, the question becomes how? How are learning environments going to increase student fitness?

The simple answer is to increase P.E. and recess time, but with standards to meet, policies to adhere too and daily schedules finalized down to the second, there’s no easy way for schools to simply make a fitness change — it would take years of planning. 

Well, without being able to maximize time spent in the gym or on the playground, does this mean classrooms should start doing sit-ups or going on class jogs? No. With time already limited to learn the required material, it’s a hard-sell to pull any teacher away from their allotted teaching time frame.

So, how do we increase physical activity in a learning environment without taking time away from the learning itself? By combining fitness and learning.

Which is exactly what we’ve done here at PCS Edventures with some of our Summer Enrichment Programs. With lessons and materials that get learners up and active, these programs allow educators to cash in on their time with students, maximizing learning through a new take on physical education. Now, we aren’t talking Geography Dodgeball or Literature and Calisthenics, but rather, we’re focusing in on curriculum that naturally gets students up and moving. And with the month of May upon us, there’s no better time to look towards this summer and the next school year. How are you going to combine fitness and learning in your educational environment?

Active Learning

As stimulating, authentic and out-of-the-box activities proven to engage students of all levels, the PCS Edventures Enrichment Programs are a great way to introduce new concepts and curriculum to students. With a long list of programs teaching everything from Claymation to the Science of Superpowers, we’ve found the secret formula for introducing fun and interactive learning into any learning environment.

Below, exercise your eyes with our Enrichment Programs which get students up and outdoors, the perfect combination of Active Learning.

Sports Science

With near-perfect pitches, swings, kicks, strokes and sprints, an athlete’s skills come down to countless hours of practice and a whole lot of science. Designed to excite students by bringing STEM into their favorite activities, this program thrives on action-packed learning experiences. Each day, learners investigate the mechanics of a different movement, connecting STEM concepts, like force, motion and the influence of gravity, to the movement of their own bodies. What does friction have to do with soccer? Why would a football player need to know about unbalanced forces? How would an Olympian hold up against a kangaroo in the long jump? Answer these questions and so much more in Sports Science!


Flying Disc

Go long! Since 700 B.C., flying discs have been making a name for themselves. In this high flying program, students zoom through the disc’s historic past while learning valuable physics concepts. While enjoying the fresh air, they investigate how discs are only able to fly because of spin (lift), angular momentum (thrust), shape (drag) and weight (gravity). With different shapes and sizes of flying objects, participants learn the most effective throwing, flying and catching techniques, gaining a crucial understanding of the four forces that affect all objects in flight.

During this 12-lesson program, learners capture a thorough knowledge of founding physics concepts, capping off the last day with an exciting game of STEM ultimate frisbee to test their newly acquired skills!



Lightning strikes, dead car batteries and losing your map — emergencies can happen at any time! While the odds of being lost or stranded outdoors are pretty low, knowing what to do in an emergency is important. As survivalists, students learn exactly what to do in an emergency through the team-based study of real-world survival skills.

From investigating the utility of tools to working through challenging situations, over this 12-day program, learners use ingenuity to gain crucial skills such as knot tying, water purification and compass navigation. Bringing STEM to the great outdoors, instructors love the hands-on, interactive and collaborative curriculum. With each thrilling activity, students gather their senses, put their new skills to the test and conquer every challenge Mother Nature throws their way!


60 Seconds or Less

In this action-packed program, students channel their inner competitive spirit to complete 60-second challenges that reinforce specific STEM principles. From exploring energy conservation by rolling marbles over tape to understanding the power of air pressure by making cups fly, each day, learners utilize household items and micro-challenges to demonstrate the expansive world of STEM.

As the challenges in 60 Seconds or Less become progressively more difficult, students need to think fast, move quickly and apply the real-world principles they’ve learned in order to earn the honor of being called a true STEM champion!


Eggs-traordinary Physics

Which came first, the chicken or egg-citing physics challenges? In this fast-moving program, students turn the study of motion and mass into hands-on projects and team building challenges! They’ll spin, toss, race and design while studying the ideas of motion, such as velocity, speed and the major role gravity plays. These egg-cellent activities are not only engaging, but they provide valuable reinforcement of the physics concepts students often struggle with.

Each day, learners meet the challenges of Eggs-traordinary Physics head-on with teamwork, application-based learning, active demonstrations and a whole lot of egg-streme fun!


Flight & Aerodynamics

Students take to the skies and explore the thrills of life at 30,000 feet with dynamic, hands-on flight-based activities. They pilot hot air balloons, parachutes, gliders, planes, helicopters and rockets, all while examining abstract physics concepts such as energy conservation, buoyancy and the four forces of flight.

Learners fly alongside the aviation experts of the world, taking quick detours to examine the history of flight as they follow the footsteps of the Wright Brother’s and da Vinci by creating extraordinary flying machines! In Flight & Aerodynamics, take the yoke and fly into the STEM-setting sun in one of our most thrilling program packages!


Discover Drones

In Discover Drones, your learning environment will experience first-hand the technology that’s been sweeping over the world. Starting with lessons in engineering and technology, students begin by building RubiQ, their modular, open-source training drone! After learning the safety regulations and procedures surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles, they’ll then start with the basics of flight, first becoming comfortable on a training simulator before moving to line-of-sight piloting. After mastering RubiQ’s controls, it’s time for students to don their First-Person View (FPV) goggles, experiencing first-hand what super-charged STEM is like!

It’s May, and that means summer is right around the corner. Are your learners working their bodies and their brains? For more ideas on how to get up and get active, follow PCS Edventures on Facebook and Twitter, where we're sharing ideas to get your students moving and keep them engaged until the very last day of school!




Balm, J. (2014, December 04). The subway of the brain - Why white matter matters. Retrieved May 2, 2018, from

Bergland, C. (2014, September 22). Why Is Physical Activity So Good for Your Brain? Retrieved May 2, 2018, from

Castelli, DM, et al. Active Education: Growing Evidence on Physical Activity and Academic Performance. San Diego, CA: Active Living Research; 2015.

Chaddock-Heyman L, Erickson KI, Holtrop JL, Voss MW, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Hillman CH and Kramer AF (2014) Aerobic fitness is associated with greater white matter integrity in children. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8:584.

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