The relationship between physical activity and academic performance is a hot topic in contemporary PA literature. Does PA lead to an increased ability to study and acquire cognitive skills? The discussion is still open, and evidence for an acute effect of physical activity on cognitive performance within the school setting is limited. We set out to provide previously untold arguments in favour of PA. The purpose of this study was to gain insight into acute effects of a short physical activity bout on selective attention in primary school children, specifically in the school setting.
Hundred and twenty three 10-11 years old children (49.6% girls) participated in this study. After 1 h of regular cognitive school tasks, children engaged in four experimental 15 min breaks in random order:
- ‘no break’ (continuing a cognitive task);
- passive break (listening to a story);
- moderate intensity physical activity break (jogging, passing, dribbling); and
- vigorous intensity physical activity break (running, jumping, skipping).
Selective attention in the classroom was assessed by the TEA-Ch test before and after the 15 min break in each condition.
After the passive break, the moderate intensity physical activity break and the vigorous intensity physical activity break attention scores were significantly better (p < 0.001) than after the ‘no break’ condition. Attention scores were best after the moderate intensity physical activity break (difference with no break 1⁄4 0.59 s/target, 95% CI: 0.70; 0.49).
The results show a significant positive effect of both a passive break as well as a physical activity break on selective attention, with the largest effect of a moderate intensity physical activity break. This suggests that schools could implement a moderate intensity physical activity break during the school day to optimize attention levels and thereby improve school performance.