Education Endowment Foundation:Physical activity

Physical activity

Low impact for very low cost based on moderate evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Physical activity refers to approaches that engage pupils in sports, dance, or any kind of physical exercise.

This might be through organised after school activities or a programme organised by a local sporting club or association. Sometimes sporting activity is used as a means to encourage young people to engage in additional learning activities, such as football training at a local football club combined with study skills, ICT, literacy, or mathematics lessons.

Physical activity has important benefits in terms of health, wellbeing and physical development. These benefits have important value in themselves, however, this Toolkit entry focuses on the benefits of physical activity for core academic attainment particularly literacy and mathematics.

There is a small positive impact of physical activity on academic attainment (+1 month). While this evidence summary focuses on the link between physical activity and academic performance, it is crucial to ensure that pupils access to high quality physical activity for the other benefits and opportunities it provides.

Impact on attainment varies considerably between different interventions, and participation in sports does not straightforwardly transfer to academic learning. It is likely that the quality of the programme and the emphasis on or connection with academic learning may make more difference than the specific type of approach or activities involved.

Planned extra-curricular activities which include short, regular, and structured teaching in literacy and mathematics (either tutoring or group teaching) as part of a sports programme, such as an after-school club or summer school, are more likely to offer academic benefits than sporting activities alone.

There is some evidence that involvement in extra-curricular sporting activities may increase pupil attendance and retention.

The average impact of the engaging in physical activity interventions and approaches is about an additional one month’s progress over the course of a year.

The variability in effects suggests that the quality of the programme and the emphasis on, or connection with, academic learning may make more difference than the specific type of approach or sporting activities involved. Participating in sports and physical activity is likely to have wider health and social benefits.

There are wider benefits from regular physical activity in terms of physical development, health and wellbeing as well as other potential benefits have been reported such as improved attendance.

  • Effects are similar (+1 month) across the primary and secondary age range.

  • Similar impact is reported for literacy and mathematics.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds may be less likely to be able to benefit from sport clubs and other physical activities outside of school due to the associated financial costs (e.g. equipment). By providing physical activities free of charge, schools give pupils access to benefits and opportunities that might not otherwise be available to them.

When considering hosting sports activities that may require contributions from parents, schools should consider whether places could be provided free of charge or subsidised for disadvantaged pupils.

The mechanism for which physical activity influences academic attainment is unclear. It may be the actual physical exercise that influences attainment, or supplementary learning activities that have been integrated into physical activity in the studies located in the Toolkit. Some ways that schools implement physical activity include:

  • Regular activities hosted before or after school;
  • External organisations delivering activities within or outside of the school;
  • The combination of sports and physical activities with teaching and learning practices (such as the teaching of study skills, ICT, literacy or mathematics lessons);
  • The integration of mentoring approaches within sports programmes.

Physical activity programmes are typically delivered over extended periods of time (e.g., a half-term, term or year) by support staff, teachers or external providers.

When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

Overall, the median costs of implementing physical activity are estimated as very low. The costs associated with physical activities arise from training for staff leading programmes, and any additional resource or equipment required, the majority of which are start-up costs.

Whilst the median cost estimate for physical activity is very low, the possible addition of extra staff salaries and facilities means that costs can range from very low to moderate.

These cost estimates assume that schools are already paying for school sports facilities and some basic materials and equipment. These are all pre-requisite costs of implementing physical activities, without which the cost is likely to be higher.

The security of the evidence around physical activity is rated as moderate. 61 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit. The topic lost a padlock because a large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers, typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies61
Review last updatedJuly 2021