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9 research findings that show why education needs sport

For many people, sport and education stand in stark opposition to each other. One is trivial, the other serious. Here, Richard Bailey of the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education tells us why there’s more to sport than just play

Education and sports

Richard Bailey of the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education tells us why there’s more to sport than just play


For many people, sport and education stand in stark opposition to each other. One is trivial, the other serious. One is about play, the other about work. This divide, which has its roots in Europe’s historical and philosophical past, can be seen clearly in education, where sport (and its educational representative, Physical Education) are frequently given low status, limited curriculum time and inadequate resources. For many parents, sport and other organised forms of physical activity ought to take a more and more marginal position within education as their children get older in order to let them focus on the ‘real business’ of school, which is to help them go on vocational training, higher education, or to work.

Over time, these attitudes have started to change, although change has sometimes been painfully slow. The emergence of the so-called ‘physical inactivity pandemic’ has clearly played a role in sport’s changing fortunes. As activity levels continue to drop, rates of non-communicable diseases go up. Sport, as the most popular, palatable form of physical activity for many people, has moved towards the centre of public health policy and practice, as cheap medicine. At the same time, there has been an acknowledgement of the significant financial contribution that sport, in its different forms, makes. Sport is a large and rapidly growing sector within the European economy, accounting for about 3% of Europe’s total GDP and about 3.5% of employment in the EU. Adult education has responded to this situation with the development of more and increasingly specialised pathways, from teachers and coaches, to the sport goods industry, to sports media and broadcasting.

There is another aspect of the relationship between sport and education, too, and developments in scientific research have only recently highlighted it fully. Evidence from educational research, psychology, the neurosciences and other disciplines is starting to show that the traditional opposition between education and sport is simply mistaken, and that - far from interfering with the business of education - sport can actually make a valuable contribution to it.

To explain this bold claim, I offer nine findings from research into the effects of sport and physical activity that show that activity - in addition to its well-known virtues of keeping bodies fit and healthy, adds enormous value to education.


1. Improve brain wiring

Sport and physical activity 'nourish' the brain, helping it work grow and operate effectively.  It has been shown that physical activity leads to profound and long-lasting changes in brain wiring, and these developments directly enhance intellectual work.


2. Boost memory

Sport and physical activity can improve learning and memory. Learners with a good memory and the ability to learn quickly have a considerable advantage which will influence almost every aspect of their experiences of adult education and beyond.


3. Better concentration and focus

Even short bouts of a few minutes of sport and physical activity can lead to improved concentration and attention, which directly effects how people learn and retain information.


4. Help with numeracy and literacy

Numeracy and literacy performance especially improve as a result of increasing levels of physical activity among younger students.


5. Improve mental wellbeing

Regular exercise can alleviate depression and anxiety, which can be particular cause for concern during adult education.


6. Foster inclusion

Institution-based sports and other physical activities are particularly valuable at creating a sense of belonging and commitment, and can help potentially marginalised students feel included and accepted.


7. Boost academic performance

Physically active people perform better academically then their inactive peers, and those who are most active benefit the most.


8. Strengthen motivation

Physically active students tend to have more qualifications, engage in further study, have an improved chances of securing a good job, and even tend to get promoted more quickly.


9. Improve employability

Physically active individuals are seen by employers as healthier, more efficient, and more reliable. So active people are more employable.


Not all sporting experiences are positive, of course, and bad sports teaching and coaching can sometimes be worse than nothing at all. So it is worthwhile students investing some time in finding the best type of sport or activity for them and the demands of their lives. But appropriately presented activities that take place in a positive and supportive environment can be inspiration.

So perhaps it is time for educational institutions and their students to think again about their presumptions about the role of sport and physical activity? Far from being fun trivialities, or distractions from the main business of education, the evidence suggests that sport and physical activity can make valuable, distinctive contributions.

Richard Bailey

Richard Bailey is a former teacher in Primary and Secondary Schools, teacher trainer, coach and coach educator. In addition to his position as Writer in Residence at the ICSSPE (International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education) Executive Office he is an author and blogger. He has worked with UNESCO as Expert Adviser for Physical Education, the World Health Organization, the European Union, and many similar agencies. He was a contributing consultant for both Nike-led Designed to Move and Active Kids Do Better initiatives, and has directed numerous scientific reviews.

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