Evidence for Learning: Physical activity

Physical activity

A summary of the research evidence on physical activity in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of physical activity on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world. This Toolkit approach was originally titled sports participation’ and the Australasian research summary reflects the original title.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on sports participation, particularly physical activity. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of sports participation interventions that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand. 

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2016.

There remains a limited amount of Australasian studies that seek to link the implementation of after-school or extra-curricular sports with academic outcomes. The few available studies discuss sports participation in the contexts of improving students’ physical activity or self-concept/worth. It has been suggested that such improvements lead to better health and attitudes, and hence better academic outcomes. While this argument is tenuous, no negative impact on learning has been found when physical activity is increased.

The meta-analysis by Beets, Beighle, Erwin and Huberty (2009)examined the link between after-school programs and physical fitness. The meta-analysis, which contains Australian data, utilised 13 articles describing findings from 11 after-school interventions. Although physical activity was a primary component of all the tested interventions, only eight studies measured physical activity. The authors found positive effect sizes for physical activity (0.44 [95 per cent CI 0.28 – 0.60]); physical fitness (0.16 [95 per cent CI 0.01– 0.30]); body composition (0.07 [95 per cent CI 0.03 – 0.12]); and blood lipids (0.20 [95 per cent CI 0.06 – 0.33]). The article does not link the increase in physical activity to increased academic outcomes.

Blomfield and Barber (2009) examined the relationship between extra-curricular activity involvement by Australian adolescents and their self concepts. A total of 1489 adolescents (56 per cent female; mean age=13.8 years) completed measures of social self-concept, academic self-concept and general self-worth, and reported on their extracurricular activity participation. Academic, social and general self-concept was higher for adolescents with mixed participation portfolios than those with sports-only and no participation portfolios. Gender did not make a difference in the majority of cases; however, it was significant in social self worth, with males demonstrating a greater level of self worth.

Hancock, Dyk and Jones (2012) examined adolescents’ participation in sports, school, and community extracurricular activities to assess the influence of different involvement roles and adult support on leadership skills. Using Australian data, this study showed that adolescents’ perceptions of their leadership skills are influenced by extracurriular activity involvement roles and the support of their parents and other adults. In particular, for sport, the study found that those who were serving as a leader/​captain in more than one sport activity significantly reported having more positive perceptions of their leadership skills. This was especially the case for female participants in sports.

The systematic review conducted in Australia by Eime, Young, Harvey, Charity and Payne (2013) explored the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport. The authors found that sport may be associated with improvement in psychosocial health above and beyond improvements attributable to participation in physical activity. However, the article does not indicate whether this sport is during school hours, extra-curricular, or community based. Furthermore, team sports, perhaps due to the social nature of participation, are linked to greater improvements in health outcomes in comparison to individual activities.

Beets, M. W., Beighle, A., Erwin, H. E., & Huberty, J. L. (2009). After-School Program Impact on Physical Activity and Fitness. A Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 36(6), 527 – 537.

Blomfield, C. J., & Barber, B. L. (2009). Brief report: Performing on the Stage, the Field, or Both? Australian Adolescent Extracurricular Activity Participation and Self-Concept. Journal of Adolescence, 32(3), 733 – 739.

Eime, R. M., Young, J. A., Harvey, J. T., Charity, M. J., & Payne, W. R. (2013). A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition & Physical Activity, 10, 98 – 118.

Hancock, D., Dyk, P. H., & Jones, K. (2012). Adolescent Involvement in Extracurricular Activities: Influences on Leadership Skills. Journal of Leadership Education, 11(1), 84 – 101.

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Extracurricular activities; extracurricular programs; school club; athletic participation; out of school activities, non-academic school activities; leisure/​recreation activities.