Mediators between physical activity and academic achievement: A systematic review

Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2022 Mar;32(3):452-464. doi: 10.1111/sms.14107. Epub 2021 Dec 5.


Background: Research has suggested the beneficial effects of physical activity (PA) on academic achievement (AA). However, the mechanisms underlying this influence remain unclear. Some proposed mechanisms include physiological, cognitive, psychological, and behavioral paths. This study aimed to analyze mediators between PA and AA in children and adolescents.

Methods: Systematic search in Medline, SPORTDiscuss, PsycInfo, Scopus, and Web of Science for observational and experimental studies, published up to March 2021.

Results: Twenty-eight studies (75237 participants, aged 4-16) were included. The designs of these studies were: 21 studies cross-sectional, 5 longitudinal, and 2 experimental. Eight out of nine studies analyzing fitness as a mediator reported positive results, and one reported null finding. Adiposity was a significant mediator in one study, in two only in girls, and two reported null results. Cognition as a mediator was supported by four studies, whereas two reported null results. Regarding mental well-being, 10 out of 14 studies reported positive effects, and one out of five behavioral studies found positive results. Although studies were too sparse to draw conclusions, overall, the results indicated that self-esteem, self-image, self-efficacy, stress, and health behaviors might be potential mediators in the relationship between PA and AA. All studies were rated as medium-high quality.

Conclusion: Overall, the available evidence seems to suggest that cardiorespiratory fitness, cognition, mental well-being, and exercise-related behaviors play some role as mediators of the relationship between PA and AA. However, the cross-sectional nature of most of the reviewed studies prevents us from making any statement in terms of causal paths. Thus, well-designed follow-up and randomized controlled studies aimed not only to tests the effect of PA in AA, but also to examine the influence of mediators are required.

Keywords: academic achievement; adolescents; children; mediator; physical activity; systematic review.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Academic Success*
  • Adolescent
  • Cardiorespiratory Fitness*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Educational Status
  • Exercise
  • Female
  • Humans

Grant support