Add Movement to the School Day to Boost Student Physical Activity and Learning

As we segue deeper into fall, the days get shorter and temperatures drop. There are fewer sunlit hours after school for children to be outside and physically active. This time of year, it is increasingly important to incorporate physical activity into the school day.

Adding more movement — through physical education, recess and active classrooms — is essential for beating the almost-winter blues. Instead of settling into an indoor, sedentary routine — it’s time to rethink the typical school day.


Inherently, the format of the school day is constrained and unengaging (a.k.a. boring). Most school days are relatively stationary, quiet and regimented. Educators worry about time spent on learning, the Common Core, and curriculum standards (all for good reason). But as a result, students spend too much time sitting and learning in passive ways (e.g. screens).

Often students move through core subjects, eagerly awaiting their specials or electives. If you ask most elementary students what their favorite subjects are, the most common answers are usually physical education and recess. Elementary students get the majority of their movement during the school day in physical education (PE) and recess.

It is estimated that kids get about 5,000-6,000 steps during school on non-PE days and 7,000-8,000 steps on PE days. Middle and high school students take even fewer steps during a typical school day. And all of these numbers fall under the recommended minimum of 10,000 steps per day. It’s simply not enough movement, especially for kids who are less involved in extracurricular sports.


We need health and physical education (HPE) teachers to flood classrooms at all levels with ideas and inspiration. HPE teachers already have it figured out!

Much of physical education is based on:

  1. An active approach;
  2. Experiential learning; and
  3. Student collaboration.

All three of these tenants of PE can be better utilized in classroom settings. The gym is not the only place where students can move, interact and learn by doing. We need classrooms to be more active and engaging like the gym!

If we pause to take a panoramic view of our current landscape, we are reminded that our country has an obesity epidemic, rise in hypokinetic diseases, as well as mental health concerns. There are also a record number of kids with social-emotional-behavioral conditions.

At this juncture, it is more important than ever to educate the whole child with a lifespan approach.

Therefore, I encourage educators to incorporate more HPE into every classroom, every day. The physical and life skills taught in HPE are imperative for long, healthy lives. The foundation for a healthy lifestyle best begins in childhood and is reinforced regularly over time. We need to make physical activity a more significant part of school culture.


Physical activity improves fitness, weight management, mental health, behavior, and most other medical conditions. As the American College of Sports Medicine puts it, Exercise is Medicine. In addition, there is convincing evidence to support the benefits of physical activity on learning.

Active and healthy students are better learners. They perform better on standardized and functional assessments. PHIT America has compiled some of the most relevant research including Dr. Charles Hillman’s work on brain plasticity. Brain scans show that bouts of aerobic exercise enable students’ brains to activate and be more ready to learn.

And, anecdotal evidence suggests that students are also more focused and engaged after physical activity. Aerobic activity essentially primes the brain for learning (and sitting does not!).


Movement can be added to the school day in a few primary ways. Fortunately, there are evidence-based resources ready for implementation.

  • More Physical Education
    SHAPE America continues to be the leader in advocacy for more frequent, high quality physical education. See SHAPE America’s Legislative Action Center to join the advocacy mailing list and find resources to help you take action in your community.
  • More Recess
    The benefits of recess include improvements in cognitive skills, social-emotional behaviors, and physical activity levels. Both increased frequency and duration of recess contribute to a myriad of positive outcomes. SHAPE America collaborated with the CDC to provide an online hub with recess strategies and guides. Check it out!
  • More Active Learning in Classrooms
    In my article Move More, Learn More in Active Classrooms, educators will find strategies, guides and resources for incorporating movement into any classroom setting on any budget. Readers will learn more about brain breaks, active seating, and active learning.


When students are active, they are more likely to be engaged. Active learning strategies lead to less boredom and more intrinsic motivation to learn. Ideally, we want students to love learning. Students who are happily engrossed in their learning process are less likely to misbehave or lack effort. Students who have the opportunity for regularly scheduled physical activity and more classroom movement benefit academically, physically, and socially.

The common concern is that adding movement takes time away from learning. Administrators usually keep a careful eye on instructional minutes. My contention with instructional time is quality over quantity.

After students have a quick recess break, instructional time will be more productive than after a prolonged stretch of sedentary classroom time (especially if it involves screens). Teachers will notice a boost in student focus and attention span after a movement break. As research supports, students will be more ready to learn, thus maximizing their time on task.

While teachers are responsible for following their state curriculum frameworks in terms of scope and sequence, curriculum delivery methods can and should vary. I implore educators to reconsider the implementation of curriculum frameworks to include more movement (e.g. Massachusetts frameworks) — and provide experiential learning opportunities and keep students excited about learning.

Think fundamentals! Reduce time spent on unessential aspects of curriculum delivery. Whichever specific curriculum program is trendy now, will be obsolete in years to come. It’s far more important for students to learn how to learn.


Once teachers decide to increase movement in the classroom, they should build it right into the daily schedule. In general, structure and routine are good for kids. Predictability regulates emotions and behavior. It is helpful for students to know when they will get movement breaks, especially opportunities for outdoor recess.

Encourage classroom teachers to take students outside rain or shine, hot or cold. At the very least, take students for a quick walk outside every day. In between recesses (yes, plural), add in brief classroom movement breaks or other strategies depicted in Move More, Learn More in Active Classrooms. It’s also important to note that students never get too old to benefit from movement and fresh air.

With some purposeful adjustments, we can make classrooms more dynamic, fun settings in which to learn. In this era of instant gratification, likes, and followers, there is a greater need to appeal to students in attention-grabbing ways. Life is too short to spend 180 days a year sitting, bored in a classroom. Encourage colleagues to use active learning strategies and movement breaks to keep students attentive in class throughout the school year.


If we add more movement to school, student engagement and enthusiasm will follow. Over time, student health and well-being will develop as well. Teach students how to learn and to love learning. Students will be able to apply their skill set to any content area throughout their educational pathway. Let our HPE professionals be our guides to happier, healthier, more productive students at all levels.

Let our HPE professionals be our guides to happier, healthier, more productive students at all levels.

Additional Resources

Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch

Dr. Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch is a professor at Westfield State University, soccer coach, and sport psychology consultant. Contact her at, read her blog, or follow her on Instagram @lynnpantuoscohensch.