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The Academic Benefits of Adding Exercise to University Lectures

David Griffin - Mar 21, 2022

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 hypothesize 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.


[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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