- The Academic Benefits of Adding Exercise to University Lectures

The Academic Benefits of Adding Exercise to University Lectures

By David Griffin

During a mentally taxing task, sufficient attention must be paid to enable both immediate and durable, long-term learning to occur. One’s mind tends to wander, however, as time spent on that task increases. This mind-wandering is often experienced by students during lectures. Mind-wandering reduces attention paid, resulting in poorer memory and potentially poorer academic performance (Wammes et al., 2016). Most university courses depend on lectures as their primary mode of academic instruction. Consequently, improving the attention paid by students during lectures could be a means of increasing and improving learning.

Off-task physical behaviours like shifting and fidgeting are thought to demonstrate reduced attention paid to that task. Intuitively, a reduction in these physical manifestations should demonstrate a refocusing on the task. It has been demonstrated in primary school-age children that exercise breaks reduce in-class physical behaviours (Janssen et al.,2014). Exercise breaks have also been demonstrated to improve language skills (Martin & Murtagh, 2015) and fluency in mathematics (Howie et al., 2015). However, no research to date has conclusively determined that the refocusing of attention observed after a physical exercise break improves learning.

Fenesi et al. (2018) at McMaster University in Canada hypothesized that introducing exercise breaks into a university lecture would improve on-task attention and result in improved learning. To test this, 77 undergraduate students enrolled in an Introductory Psychology course were recruited. Students provided informed consent and received course credits in return for their participation.

All students watched an online 50-minute lecture based on form perception; a part of the normal course content which deals with the recognition of visual characteristics of objects. The course ordinarily involved some online lecture delivery, so this was in keeping with standard practice. Students were divided into three groups. These were the Exercise Breaks group, the Non-Exercise Breaks group and the No Breaks group. The Exercise Breaks group received three five-minute breaks approximately 17 minutes apart during the online lecture. During each of these breaks, the students were required to perform experimenter-led calisthenic exercises. The Non-Exercise Breaks group received the same scheduled breaks but played the computer game Bejeweled for their duration. The No Breaks group received no breaks during the lecture.

Immediately after the lecture, all students were asked to complete two documents. The first was a comprehension assessment. The second was a questionnaire asking them to assess their experience of mind-wandering during the lecture as well as their perceptions on narrator clarity, their own understanding of the content, their interest and engagement with the content and its level of difficulty. A second comprehension assessment was completed again 48 hours after the lecture to assess the students’ longer-term learning.

Overall, the students in the Exercise Breaks group performed significantly better in both the immediate and longer-term comprehension assessments than the other two groups. The Non-Exercise Breaks group performed no better than those in the No-Breaks group, suggesting that breaks alone are not enough to improve comprehension. Those in the Exercise Breaks cohort also reported no decline in their on-task attention during the lecture; both those students who played computer games and those who received no breaks reported a decline in on-task attention as the lecture progressed. The Exercise Breaks group also perceived the narrator to be clearer and their own understanding of the content to be better than the other two groups. There was no significant difference, however, in the students’ perception of their own interest level, the difficulty of the material or their engagement with it.

This work highlights the great benefits of introducing exercise breaks into the lecture theatre. This simple addition can aid both short and longer-term comprehension for students as well as helping them focus on the task at hand. This study also suggests that providing breaks alone is insufficient; in the complex connection between physiology and cognition, physical exercise matters. The authors hypothesise that these benefits are also likely to be applicable in workplaces and training programmes. This is the first study to investigate the impact of exercise breaks on comprehension, memory and on-task attention in adults. While further research is needed on this fascinating topic, this simple study may provide an additional resource to educators to help their students succeed.


Q: How do students feel about the introduction of exercise breaks during lectures?

A: The study mentioned does not explicitly detail students' feelings towards the introduction of exercise breaks during lectures. However, it's inferred from the results that students in the Exercise Breaks group perceived the narrator to be clearer and their own understanding of the content to be better than those in other groups. This suggests a positive reception towards exercise breaks, as they felt more on-task and had a better comprehension of the lecture content. The concept of student voice could further explore students' attitudes by directly asking them for feedback on how these breaks affect their lecture experience, potentially through surveys or focus groups. This approach would give students a platform to express their views on the effectiveness and enjoyment of exercise breaks, providing valuable insights for educators.

Q: Can the benefits of exercise breaks extend to online learning environments, and how could this be measured?

A: The study conducted at McMaster University already took place in an online learning environment, indicating that the benefits of exercise breaks can indeed extend to such settings. The exercise breaks led to significant improvements in both immediate and longer-term comprehension assessments compared to groups without exercise breaks. To measure these benefits more comprehensively, future research could incorporate text analysis of student feedback or forum posts to gauge the broader impacts on student engagement, satisfaction, and perceived learning. Text analysis could identify common themes and sentiments expressed by students about the exercise breaks, offering a more nuanced understanding of their effectiveness in online learning environments.

Q: Are there any differences in the effectiveness of exercise breaks across various subjects or types of lectures?

A: The blog post does not address whether the effectiveness of exercise breaks varies across different subjects or types of lectures. This is an area ripe for further research. It would be interesting to see if the benefits of exercise breaks are universal or if they are more pronounced in certain disciplines, such as those requiring high levels of concentration and memorisation versus more interactive or discussion-based subjects. Employing student voice through feedback collection and analysis after implementing exercise breaks in various subjects could provide insights. Additionally, text analysis of student feedback across different courses could help educators understand which subjects benefit most from such breaks, allowing them to tailor their teaching strategies accordingly.


[Source Paper] Fenesi, B., Lucibello, K., Kim, J.A., Heisz, J.J. (2018). Sweat so you don’t forget: exercise breaks during a university lecture increase on-task attention and learning. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 7(2), 261–269
DOI: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2018.01.012

[1] Howie, E. K., Schatz, J., & Pate, R. R. (2015). Acute effects of classroom exercise breaks on executive function and math performance: A dose–response study. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport,86(3), 217–224
DOI: 10.1080/02701367.2015.1039892

[2] Janssen, M., Chinapaw, M., Rauh, S., Toussaint, H., van Mechelen, W., & Verhagen, E. (2014). A short physical activity break from cognitive tasks increases selective attention in primary school children aged 10–11. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 7(3), 129–134.
DOI: 10.1016/j.mhpa.2014.07.001

[3] Martin, R., & Murtagh, E. M. (2015). Preliminary findings of active classrooms: An intervention to increase physical activity levels of primary school children during class time. Teaching and Teacher Education, 52, 113–127.
DOI: 10.1016/j.tate.2015.09.007

[4] Wammes, J. D., Seli, P., Cheyne, J. A., Boucher, P. O., & Smilek, D. (2016). Mind wandering during lectures II: Relation to academic performance. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology,2(1), 33–48.
DOI: 10.1037/stl0000055

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