Holistic education: The importance of physical activity

Holistic education models are a current trend in education, with many national systems or individual schools purporting to offer a more humanistic approach. In essence, holistic education places the child at the centre of learning and seeks to develop multiple aspects of the pupil so that they can effectively engage with the world in which they live.

However, holistic education is not a new concept. Since the late 1800’s, educators, philosophers and psychologists; e.g. Mason, Dewey, Montessori and Steiner, suggested that education should be understood as the art of cultivating the moral, emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the developing child.


Holistic education is based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to spiritual values such as compassion and peace. Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning. (Miller, 2000)

Holistic education is manifested currently in schools as a curriculum that offers breadth in learning opportunities including those specifically designed to promote personal and social development. A fundamental component of all holistic education models is that of physical development and physical activity. Yet it has been argued that resources and time should be prioritised for the study of core academic subjects that form the basis of public examinations.  This article seeks to establish the importance of physical activity in effective learning and establish that offering opportunities for physical development is not at the consequence of academic success.
The most effective examples of integrating physical activity into a holistic model is that for the education of the youngest pupils. The Early Years Foundation Stage from the UK and the Ministry of Education Guidancefor the Education of 3 – 6 year olds in China holds physical development as a prime area of learning. That is, physical development is considered centrally important to pupil learning. In balance, early years education is effective inensuring that learning and physical development are entwined. However, this is not always the case for older pupils, especially those preparing for public examinations.  This, despite the health benefits of physical activity being well documented. So what are the benefits of physical activity for pupils?

Exercise and Cognitive Function

Researchers report strong evidence of a “significant positive relationship” between physical activity and academic performance. Exercise increases circulation, which can have profound effects on learning ability. In a study published in 2007, researchers from the Medical College of Georgia looked at the effects of aerobic exerciseon cognitive function of overweight and sedentary children. After 15 weeks of regular exercise, test scores improved significantly over pre-trial results. The higher test results support the notion that students should be given adequate time to exercise during the regular school day. Singh (2012) in analysis of 14 research studies identified the importance of exercise in increasing circulation and oxygen levels in the brain which is essential for effective brain function.



A study published in 2011 in the journal Health Psychology found specific patterns of brain activity associated with exercise. The area of the brain affected was the prefrontal cortex, located in the anterior part of the brain. This area functions in problem-solving and complex thought, which can explain the mechanism for how physical exercise affects learning ability. A possible explanation for such brain activity relates to the release of noradrenalin during exercise, which has the impact of increasing arousal and readiness for activity promoting greater concentration, sustained focus and also improved problem solving capabilities. Furthermore, the associated production of serotonin during exercise is known to active brain function associated with memory and learning.

A 2007 study looked at cognitive function in pupils at a range of ages and found similar health benefits with college-aged students, supporting the contention that the physical exercise can benefit brain function no matter what a person’s age.



Another effect of exercise on the brain involves creativity. A study published in the “Creativity Research Journal” in 2005 found that aerobic exercise increased creativity potential in students engaging in moderately intense activity.

Exercise and Stress

An additional benefit of physical exercise is its effects on stress management. Even minor levels of stress have a negative impact on concentration, memory andthus, learning. Exercise has been shown to help relieve stress and improve concentration. An explanation relates to the release of serotonin in the brain during exercise, which has the impact of promoting a feeling of happiness and well-being.



Children who learn to participate in sport learn to obey rules. This may mean they are more disciplined and able to concentrate…(Singh, 2012)


Social and Moral Development

Providing opportunities to engage in sport is a powerful means of inspiring pupils, promoting passion and dedication to personal development. The act of improving performance is underpinned by self-discipline, responsibility and reflection. Whereas, the experience of success and loss are essential in cultivating resilience and confidence. These are fundamental traits in all successful individuals.



The rules inherent in any sport are an effective way to promote moral and ethical development, whilst the social nature of team sports allows children to establish effective communication and leadership skills.


In Conclusion

  • There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including public examination grades and standardised test scores.
  • Physical activity can have an impact on cognitive skills, attitudes and academic behaviour, all of which are important components of improved academic performance. These include enhanced concentration and attention as well as improved classroom behaviour.
  • Increasing or maintaining time dedicated to physical education may help, and does not appear to adversely impact, academic performance.

Based on the information above, it seems that all educators must ensure that physical activity has a central place in learning. Regardless of the age of the learner.


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The association between school based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2010.
  • Miller, R. (2000). ‘A brief introduction to holistic education’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. http://infed.org/mobi/a-brief-introduction-to-holistic-education