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Why do primary schools need regular exercise breaks?

Physical education expert Jon Tait discusses the benefits of short bursts of physical activity throughout the school day

Posted by Hannah Vickers | July 26, 2017 | Health & wellbeing

If we want to protect the physical and mental health of future generations, we must ensure that primary-age pupils have regular opportunities for exercise throughout the school day.

It’s already a commonly held belief that short bursts of exercise can make all the difference for a child’s concentration and academic performance throughout the school day. This is particularly true for primary-age children, who are undergoing a critical time for the development of their minds and bodies.

This is why the government’s Chief Medical Officer recommends at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day. It is also recommended that at least 30 minutes should be delivered in schools. This could be achieved across break times, PE or in extra-curricular clubs. It is then up to parents and carers to ensure children have regular exercise outside of school time as well.


Despite this recommendation, many primary schools still struggle to find time for regular physical activity during hectic timetables and crammed curriculums. From the latest NHS data, we know that only 23% of boys and 20% of girls are meeting their recommended level of physical activity.

The notable gap between boys and girls starts as early as eight years old, which some experts attribute to issues around confidence. But it’s a vicious cycle, as poor physical health can lead to low body confidence, less frequent participation in team sports, disengagement in class and lower attainment. In addition, more than one in five children start primary school overweight or obese; rising to more than a third by the time they leave, adding further to these insecurities. 

So, why are our schools struggling to find the time for daily physical activity? The obvious answer is that a demanding curriculum means most of us, as teachers, have our foot on the gas – not a minute can be wasted!

When working across primary and secondary groups, I’ve seen how holding short activity sessions at the beginning of the day, rather than in the afternoon, has energised pupils and boosted engagement.

Physical activity helps to improve brain function. If we also weave problem-solving into our short bursts of exercises, we can more readily transfer that cognitive development to core curriculum work

This is partly because physical activity helps to improve brain function. If we also weave problem-solving into our short bursts of exercises, we can more readily transfer that cognitive development to core curriculum work.

A great example of this principle in practice comes in the form of 10 Minute Shake Ups from Change4Life with Disney. 10 Minute Shake Ups provide free, Disney-inspired resources designed to keep primary-age pupils active throughout the school day.

The resources are a set of fun, flexible activity ideas, which include take-home materials for parents so that children can continue their activity from the summer term and into the holidays.

For teachers across the world, getting the right balance and being able to link exercise, concentration and attainment is quite rightly considered gold dust. Schools and individual educators are looking for the Holy Grail: how to improve learner outcomes and improve cognitive skills, all on a tight budget?

I would argue that taking 10-15 minute breaks at regular intervals throughout the school timetable, where possible, will actually help to accelerate pupils’ academic progress. This could be engaging pupils to get active during an assembly session, or during the registration period. Small changes will reap larger benefits.

It is startling to think that this simple solution to poor concentration and attainment might have been staring us in the face all this time - regular breaks for physical activity, built into the timetable, and approached as a way to relieve the daily pressures faced by both pupils and teachers, all while having a bit of fun. And it doesn’t cost a penny!

The majority of state primary schools will receive the latest 10 Minute Shake Up packs from Public Health England’s Change4Life.

Jon Tait is a deputy headteacher, speaker, author and blogger. 

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