For the first time in history, the lifespan of our children and young adults is on track to be shorter than their parents.

The root of this health goliath is their increasingly sedentary lifestyles combined with deteriorating diets.

The answer appears simple: promote more physical activity among our young people (and all of us, for that matter) and eat healthier.

But with current trajectories looking dire due to their reduction in physical activity, rise in screen time, lack of accessibility to healthy foods and diminishing participation in sports, this gargantuan problem is not easily solved.

Such big problems require equally big solutions.

A captive, yet underactive, audience

Kids spend significant time at school, but unfortunately we are underleveraging the powerful combination of sport and education.

Research shows a positive correlation between sports participation and education performance among students.

Engaging in sports activities alongside academic pursuits can have several benefits that contribute to improved educational outcomes, and education can likewise be leveraged to improve sport participation outcomes.

Sports participation promotes physical health and well-being:

  • It is linked to improved concentration, memory, and cognition, leading to better academic performance.
  • Regular exercise also improves students’ anxiety and stress, which can benefit academic performance.
  • It accelerates social integration and connection, which helps to build a sense of belonging.
  • It enhances students’ confidence and academic engagement for better outcomes.
  • It provides opportunities for collaboration, leadership, self-esteem, social skills and motivation to succeed academically.
  • Traits learned through sport are transferrable to educational performance; for example time management, goal setting, communication and discipline.

Leading by example

In Finland and Denmark (education systems with some of the best educational outcomes in the world), a comprehensive approach is taken to embed at least one hour of physical activity every day. This is in addition to incorporating physical activity breaks throughout the day, encouraging active learning and active transportation to and from school with walking bus systems.

In Japan, schools often start with radio calisthenics, to energise at the start of each day and in Canada, regular activity is integrated in the classroom through regular movement breaks, active learning and stand up desks.

In Australia, there is a government funded Active Schools program enabling extra curricula sports activities.

Mutual benefits backed by research

A study in 2019 examined the relationship between sports participation and academic achievement among high school students. The researchers found that students who participated in sports had higher GPA scores and graduation rates compared to non-athletes. The study also highlighted that student-athletes were more likely to pursue higher education.

Another study published in the Journal of School Health in 2020 explored the impact of sports participation on academic performance and psychological well-being among middle school students. The researchers found a positive association between sports involvement and academic achievement, as well as improved mental health outcomes, including lower levels of stress and depression.

Several studies have demonstrated that there is an association between female CEOs and their participation in collegiate sports. For example, a report by Fortune 500 magazine found that over 94% of the female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list had participated in sports during academic years, with 52% competing through to collegiate level.

Physical literacy, the forgotten X factor

With these well documented synergies between sport and education, it is incredulous that physical education is being squeezed from curricula. While balance is important, it seems a missed opportunity to omit physical literacy from educational outcome measures.

A healthy student will be a more engaged student. A healthy and engaged student will benefit our economy for a lifetime.

Developing the holistic student

High performance sport has a focus upon developing the holistic athlete, and many sporting organisations are now helping to support athletes to undertake study to enhance their wellbeing and future careers beyond sport.

But what about the concept of the holistic student? As part of a degree, could students:

  • Be acknowledged for their participation in collegiate sports?
  • Have their health and wellbeing enhanced in class with more movement in breaks, and incentivised during intense study periods like exams?
  • Be brought together with their cohorts outside of the classroom for fun runs, pickle ball or golf?

Imagine world university rankings that included student sports participation and wellbeing as a criterion along with teaching and research quality!

Something for everyone

While universities have long attracted elite athletes through athlete scholarship programs, why shouldn’t all students be encouraged to participate in sports, and investment made in ensuring accessibility to sports that align with the diverse multicultural population in universities and schools?


Our duty of care at educational institutions extends to student wellbeing. Why shouldn’t physical activity therefore be encouraged and supported?


When considered synergistically, sport and education are undervalued. Policy driving sport or education needs to consider the combined impacts of both when integrated to maximise student outcomes in health and academic performance.


How to bring sport into the classroom

Another example of sport augmenting educational engagement can be via curricula content. If students find sport intrinsically interesting and relevant (as many do), then why not leverage this interest as a context for learning?

  • Use sports analytics to teach statistics and data analysis.
  • Look at sports science to spark interest in science.
  • Study venue and equipment design to engage students in engineering, technology and other much needed STEM skills.
  • Examine the complexity of global sport to demonstrate legal, governance and ethical issues of human rights, justice, evidence and critical reflection of regulation and decision making.
  • Undertake a field trip to observe the technology underpinning smart stadia and major event delivery.
  • Analyse design thinking and entrepreneurship at the heart of sports technology and venue architecture.
  • Dive into coding and the virtual worlds that have been created to support esports and hybrid sports.

Our pitches, pools and playing fields are a rich source of education – and stimulation – for our children and young adults. It can also make teaching a lot more fun. I can’t help but recall the Ferris Buller scene on Voodoo Economics: “Anyone? Anyone?”

This is a problem that unfortunately many teachers are facing, but by contextualising learning through sport – think skateboarding, surfing and ball trajectories and physics, we can avoid this descent into Voodoo.

Life moves pretty fast, and if we don’t stop and stand up to that Goliath on our doorstep, our children are the ones who will pay the price.

About the Author

Professor Sarah Kelly, renowned for her global academic, leadership and governance expertise across education and sports management, drives forward-thinking initiatives to the world stage. A distinguished ‘prac-academic’, commercial lawyer and champion for inclusivity, Sarah leads with innovation and insight. For exclusive updates on the latest in sport, management, leadership, education, innovation, and research, subscribe at DrSarahKelly.com.au