The role of physical activity in ESL

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Klaudija Šterman Ivančič

The socio-emotional well-being, learning behaviour and motivation of ESL students can be supported by including regular physical activity in prevention and compensation ESL programmes. School-community collaboration, extracurricular sport activities, organised sport events and expressive practices are possible forms of such activities.

In the literature, the role of physical activity in ESL is mainly investigated in connection to the individual’s health promotion and learning abilities. As studies (e.g. Share et al., 2013) show, early school leavers (ESLrs) lack awareness about the importance of physical activity in their lives and are on average less physically active than students included in the education system. Not only do physically active students choose healthier lifestyles, are physically and mentally healthier and tend to achieve better in schools, physical activity also plays an important role in supporting the individual’s socio-emotional well-being (sense of belonging, self-efficacy, self-esteem etc.) (e.g. Castelli et al., 2014; OECD, 2010; WHO, 2011). Through ESL prevention and compensation activities such as extracurricular sport activities, organised sport events and usage of expressive practices within physical education and activities, we can help keep socially disadvantaged students off the street and support their learning processes by improving their self-esteem, social skills, strengthening their interpersonal relationships with other peers, teachers and the wider community, and addressing their problems with stress management, school failure, discrimination, communication difficulties and learning disabilities (e.g. Basich, 2006; Biddle, Mutrie, & Gorely, 2015; Fedewa & Ahn, 2011; Senlin, Haichun, Xihe, & Ang, 2014; Strong et al., 2005; Taras, 2005). In order to achieve these positive effects, schools and the community should collaborate in organised action, physical activity should become an important part of every school and community-based (educational) programmes and teachers should rethink physical education activities so that, besides physical purposes, they more explicitly support the individual’s social and emotional well-being by including body language expression, techniques of self-awareness (e.g. techniques of self-focused attention, perseverance of concentration) and interpersonal bonding (e.g. encouragement for affiliation via group sports). From this perspective, the importance of physical activity in reducing ESL is uncontested.


Being physically active is one of the most important steps in being physically and mentally healthy. Physical activity by itself reduces the risk of most chronic diseases, improves musculoskeletal health and psychological well-being (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009; WHO, 2011). In terms of academic achievement, physical activity has important positive effects on a student’s concentration, memory, motivation and classroom behaviour (Castelli et al., 2014; McDonald, 2007) and helps reduce mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. All of the mentioned factors are important in the context of a student’s academic involvement and persistence (Strong et al., 2005).

In the literature, we can find reciprocal effects between physical activity and ESL. On one hand, the World Health Organization (2011) and the OECD (2010) state the important connection between an individual’s years of involvement in the educational process and his health and physical activity. Those with higher education levels have increased levels of physical activity and individuals with lower education levels are at risk for adopting lifestyle behaviours that can have a potentially negative impact on health, such as diet, lower levels of physical activity, and drug abuse. This means (Limerick Health Promotion, 2008; Share, Hennessy, Stewart-Knox, & Davison, 2013) that young people who stay in the school setting have longer access to positive school cultures, supportive environments and healthy policies that can impact positively on their health and lifestyle choices (e.g. healthy eating, physical activity etc.). ESLrs are deprived of this. In this manner, a lower level of physical activity is one of the negative consequences of an individual’s ESL and can also be considered one of the characteristics of students who left the educational setting too early (ibid.). This is the connection between ESL and physical activity that is most often described in the literature.

On the other hand, the link between physical activity and ESL also goes in the other direction, i.e. physical activity leading to lower levels of ESL. The aim of this article is to look at theoretical and empirical investigations that consider physical activity as a characteristic of ESLrs and as an important prevention activity that can be strengthened in order to help lower ESL rates; we explain via which mechanisms physical activity can contribute to low ESL. In this context, we will pay special attention to the effects of physical education on the individual’s physical and mental health, the effects on learning processes and ways that the physical activity of ESLrs can be bolstered through different community-based approaches to education and improving the individual’s social and emotional health.


In the process of reviewing the literature in field of interaction between physical activity and ESL, we first conducted a literature search of the scientific EBSCOhost online research databases (Academic Search Complete, ERIC, PsycARTICLES, PsycBOOKS, PsycINFO, and SocINDEX with Full Text databases) and the Web of Science database. In order to review project reports and practical implications of community-based programmes that encourage physical activity in ESL, we also searched for related results online. The main keywords initially used in both cases were: physical activity and academic achievement, physical activity and ESL, physical education for ESLrs, physical health of ESLrs, physical education and emotional well-being, and active teaching methods of community learning. In the first step, we noticed a very limited number of search results in response to the mentioned terms that would consider all three: the role of physical activity, ESL and community-based activities. We therefore expanded our search to the field of sociology of physical education in which those approaches are largely incorporated. We also examined references cited in the reviewed articles, educational programme brochures, and project reports. Texts that were taken into account had to meet the following criteria: the topic needed to address the role of physical activity in tackling ESL and improving the individual’s social and emotional health or the topic had to describe ways in which physical activity can be implemented in community-based supportive practices. The conclusions are primarily based on findings from theoretical and research articles and evaluations of different already performed projects/programmes on this topic.

Mechanisms linking physical activity with educational outcomes and ESL

It is already well established (e.g. Basch, 2011; Dwyer, Sallis, Blizzard, Lazarus, & Dean, 2001; McDonald, 2007; Singh, Uijtdewilligen, Twisk, van Mechelen, and Chinapaw, 2012) that regular physical activity has positive effects on the individual’s educational outcomes. It affects different areas of the individual’s functioning that contribute to better adaptation in a school setting. Here we would like to expose those aspects of physical activity that can be encouraged through school and community-based education in order to successfully tackle ESL rates.

Some authors (e.g. Shephard, 1997) point to an important aspect of physical education’s role in the lives of students, i.e. the attitude to sport and physical activity is already shaped in early years of the individual’s educational path. There is evidence from cross-sectional (e.g. McDonald, 2007; Schendel, 1965; Schun & Brookover, 1970) and longitudinal studies (e.g. Shephard, Lavallée, Volle, LaBarre, & Beaucage, 1994) that the likelihood of becoming active and sustaining a regular exercise programme during the years after compulsory education depends on the individual’s early experience and exposure to physical activity (Godin & Shephard, 1990). A similar association also exists between physical activity and cognitive functioning (e.g. Shephard et al., 1994; Teasdale, Sorensen, & Stunkard, 1992). Systematically supported physical activity in the early years of schooling is therefore a crucial prevention step in supporting well-being and academic achievements of all students in later years.

Physical activity by itself increases the individual’s physical and mental health by enabling the body and mind to relax and produce hormones that contribute to better mood, physical and emotional health (Paluska, 2000). In this way, it can help individuals with coping mental disorders such as depression and anxiety (Folkins & Sime, 1982; Paluska, 2000; Weir, 2011), disorders that tend to recur more often in the ESL student population (Limerick Health Promotion, 2008). On the other hand, studies (e.g. Share et al., 2013; WHO, 2011) show that ESLrs tend to be less physically active than students who stay in the education system. In their report on ESLrs and nutrition, Share and colleagues (2013) point out that ESLrs often lack understanding of the important role of physical activity in their lives. It is therefore critical for community-based programmes to incorporate at least basic forms of physical activity into their programmes, encourage ESLrs to participate and share awareness about the importance of being physically active since regular physical activity is the most fundamental way to help increase students’ physical and mental well-being.

Besides that, physical activity affects students’ emotional and social well-being which is also very important in addressing ESLrs. Different studies (e.g. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010; Fedewa & Ahn, 2011; Strong et al., 2005; Taras, 2005) have already confirmed that physical activity helps shape a student’s positive behavioural patterns that promote persistence and academic achievement such as a sense of belonging, tolerance between students, mutual respect, cooperation, and healthy competitiveness. It has also been established (e.g. Epstein et al., 2002; Schargel & Smink, 2004) that increasing the individual’s sense of belonging and acceptance plays an important part in tackling ESL rates. It is therefore crucial for both schools and community-based educational programmes to organise and promote physical activity among students in a way that encourages acceptance and cooperation among all students. Physical activity in the sense of organised group sports activities where every individual has an important role is one of the points where this can be supported.
Another important aspect within the connection between a student’s educational outcomes and physical activity is motivation for learning and persisting in educational tasks. Physical activity always involves the restraint of one’s efforts and teaches us that persistence is needed to achieve goals. In this way, it increases the individual’s self-esteem and perceived self-efficacy (Basich, 2006; Bowker, Gadbois, & Cornock, 2003; Biddle, Mutrie, & Gorely, 2015; Senlin, Haichun, Xihe, & Ang, 2014), an area that is a very important part of a student’s academic motivation and an aspect where ESLrs often need encouragement (Benard, 1991).

Share (Share et al., 2013) also states that activities related to physical activity in mainstream and alternative education focus mainly on curriculum-based approaches to introducing physical activity to students. Approaches tend to be passive and not geared to the different needs of young people in different education settings. Especially for ESLrs, there is a great need for innovative and practical responses that are enjoyable for them and address their social and emotional needs such as their lack of a sense of belonging to a peer group or community (Cederberg & Hartsmar, 2013; Frostad, Pijl, & Mjaavatn, 2014), lack of motivation for learning (Schargel & Smink, 2004) and maladaptive school behaviour in general (ibid.). The social and emotional well-being of ESLrs through physical education is therefore an area that needs improvement.

Physical activity in community learning

In the previous chapter, we established how physical activity is important for the physical, mental, emotional and social well-being of ESLrs. It is an important point where those aspects can be strengthened and encouraged as part of prevention and compensation strategies to reduce ESL rates where both schools and community-based programmes play an important role. One of the most recognisable ways in the literature and policy documents (e.g. European Commission, 2013; Luthar, Shoum, & Brown, 2006; Zarret & Eccles, 2009) to achieve this are extracurricular activities after and outside school and different community-based programmes that offer learning, social and emotional support to ESLrs.

Extracurricular physical (sports) activities after and outside school can raise self-esteem, improve motivation and support learning processes (Corneliβen & Pfeifer, 2007; Zarret & Eccles, 2009). Another important aim of such activities in the context of ESL is to keep children off the street. Studies (e.g. Corneliβen & Pfeifer, 2007) show that free time allocated to activities such as sports reduces the chance of students participating in more harmful activities (e.g. watching television, smoking, drinking etc.) and, as such, has an indirect positive effect on educational productivity. The importance of preventive extracurricular and out-of-school sport activities for preventing ESL is therefore uncontested.

In certain areas, schools might also be the only institution available with sports facilities (e.g. gyms, sports equipment) that allow for non-formal sport activities outside school hours. Opening the school to educators other than teachers is therefore essential to overcome the reluctance towards education of ESLrs (WHO, 2006).

It is also very important that local organisations (educational, youth, sport) recognise the potential for physical activity of ESLrs in their surroundings (connecting with nature, local environment) and in this way try to increase the sense of belonging of ESLrs to their community through sports (Cavill, Foster, Oja, & Martin, 2006; WHO, 2006). Physical activity in the form of different sport events (e.g. sports days) is also an excellent way that community educators can include the families of ESLrs into their educational process through enjoyable and low-cost activities. By connecting ESLrs with their local environment, community organisations and different social contexts (families, schools and peers) through different sport events and activities, their social and cultural capital can be systematically strengthened.

The community-based approach to education and learning tends to be collaborative and, besides conventional teaching methods, is based on informal teaching methods (e.g. role play, socio-drama, participative action research, movement, art etc.) (Ancosan, 2009). As such, it has even greater potential to incorporate different forms of learning techniques that involve movement and physical activity and thus develop and support the social and emotional well-being of ESLrs. Those practices (e.g. Accrochage Scolaire Services project, 2013; The Forum Theatre against ESL project, 2013; Facing Youth unemployment from its very beginning project, 2014) are often referred to in the literature as expressive practices and are aimed to improve the self-knowledge and self-esteem of groups at risk, including ESL students. With help of such techniques, students are able to realise and address their problems with self-esteem, self-confidence, stress management, previous negative experiences with school failure, discrimination, behavioural problems, learning disabilities, school phobias and communication difficulties. Through body language expression and techniques of self-awareness (e.g. role playing, socio-drama), they more easily express their needs and problems. By harmonising their body and language expression, they increase their capacity for attention and concentration. In such learning settings, they also experience acceptance from others, interpersonal bonding and practice mindfulness and empathy towards others and oneself.


According to the literature and projects review, we can draw on several important conclusions concerning physical activity’s positive role in tackling ESL (see Figure 1).

JPEG - 734.3 kb
Figure 1: Physical activity’s different beneficial effects on ESL

First, physical activity has an important impact on a student’s physical and mental health. It is one of the basic human needs and has beneficial effects on the human as a whole (Teixeira, Carraça, Markland, Silva, & Ryan, 2012). It relaxes the body, helps with coping depression and anxiety, stimulates the student’s concentration and learning motivation. Through sports, ESLrs can learn how to be active and achieve small goals which stimulate them to also be more confident and effective in other areas of life, including education. This means it is crucial to incorporate regular physical activity in all ESL educational prevention and compensation programmes since just by carrying out basic forms of physical activity has an important impact on a student’s physical, mental and also emotional health and supports the educational process on different levels. Moreover, since it has been found that ESLrs are on average less physically active, it is also crucial to raise their awareness about the importance of being physically active.

Another important aspect of physical activity is its impact on a student’s socio-emotional well-being. ESLrs often lack a sense of acceptance and belonging to peers, the school and also the community as a whole. The first important step in raising their sense of belonging through sports is the cooperation between schools and the wider community (sport facilities, adult education organisations, health organisations and employers). WHO (2011) points out that the local environment has a vital role in promoting sport and physical activity since it is mainly in the local setting that opportunities to be physically active are provided. Taking a life course approach and offering physical activity in different settings, including schools and workplaces, is essential to the promotion of physical activity, especially for vulnerable groups such as ESLrs. Extracurricular sport activities organised in schools and organised sport events are therefore an important way to strengthen ESLrs’ social and cultural capital, their sense of belonging and acceptance, to include their parents in educational activities and to keep ESLrs off the street in socio-economically disadvantaged environments.

Besides including and carrying out regular basic forms of physical activity in ESL prevention and compensation programmes, it is important to include practices (e.g. socio-drama, role playing etc.) that enable students to express themselves through movement and body language. In this way, physical activity can be used as a tool to improve ESLrs’ self-awareness and help them address their problems with school failure, discrimination, learning disabilities, communication difficulties and behavioural problems. Drawing on encouraging results from different initiatives (e.g. Accrochage Scolaire Services project, 2013; The Forum Theatre against ESL project, 2013; Facing Youth unemployment from its very beginning project, 2014), it may be worthwhile to rethink school physical education activities for teens in the context of ESL prevention and compensation programmes so that, apart from physical and practical purposes, they include body language expression, rhythmic-expressive activities or techniques of self-awareness. Unfortunately, some authors (e.g. Castelli et al., 2014) point to the fact that in today’s educational practice there is a big tendency to reduce physical activity in schools in order to increase students’ productivity and academic achievements in other areas of learning. Such an approach contradicts with the findings described in this article and therefore represents an even greater risk factor for ESLrs. This points to a need for the educational community to realise the importance of physical activity in the process of teaching and learning in order to increase the cognitive, social and emotional well-being of all students.

(2013). Retrieved from

(2009). Principles of community education. Retrieved from

(2006). Thesis: The impact of physical activity and sports on self-esteem in adolescent girls. Marietta: Marietta College.

(2011). Physical activity and the achievement gap among urban minority youth [Special issue]. Journal of School Health, 81(10), 626–634.

(1991). Fostering resiliency in kids: Protective factors in the family, school, and community. Oregon: Western Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities.

, , & (2015). Psychology of physical activity (3rd Edition). Oxon: Routledge.

, , & (2003). Sports participation and self-esteem: Variations as a function of gender and gender role orientation. Sex Roles, 49(1), 47–58.

, , , , , , & (2014). The history of physical activity and academic performance research: Informing the future. In J. P. Bauer (Ed.) The relation of childhood physical activity to brain health, cognition, and scholastic achievement (119–148). Charlotte: Information Age Publishing.

, , , & (2006). An evidence-based approach to physical activity promotion and policy development in Europe: Contrasting case studies. IUHPE – Promotion and Education, 13(2), 20–27.

, & (2013). Some aspects of early school leaving in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland. European Journal of Education, 48, 378–389.

(2010). The association between school based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

, & (2007). The impact of participation in sports on educational attainment: New evidence from Germany. IZA Discussion Paper, November 2007.

, , , , & (2001). Relation of academic performance to physical activity and fitness in children. Pediatric Exercise Science, 13, 223–237.

, , , , , & (2002). School, family, and community partnership: Your handbook for action. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, Inc.

(2013). Reducing early school leaving: Key messages and policy support. Brussels: Directorate-General for Education and Culture.

(2014). Retrieved from:

, & (2011). The effects of physical activity and physical fitness on children’s achievement and cognitive outcomes: A meta-analysis. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 82(3), 521–535.

, & (1981). Physical fitness training and mental health. American Psychologist, 36(4), 373–389.

, , & (2014). Losing all interest in school: Social participation as a predictor of the intention to leave upper secondary school early. Scandinavian Journal of Education Research (online):

, & (1990). Use of attitude-behavior models in exercise promotion in relation to body mass index of adult males. Journal of Human Biology, 64, 99–106.

(2008). Health impact assessment of early school leaving, absenteeism and truancy. Limerick: Limerick Regeneration Agency.

, , & (2006). Extracurricular involvement among affluent youth: A scapegoat for “ubiquitous achievement pressures”? Developmental Psychology, 42(3), 583–597.

(2007). Active transport to school: Trends among U.S. schoolchildren, 1969–2001. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 32(6), 509–16.

OECD (2010). Health at a glance: Europe 2010. OECD Publishing. Retrieved from

Paluska, S. A., & Scwenk, T. L. (2000). Physical activity and mental health. Sports Medicine, 29, 167–180.

, & (2004). Helping students graduate: A strategic approach to dropout prevention. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

, , , & (2014). Relationship between motivation and learning in physical education and after-school physical activity. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 85, 468–477.

, , , & (2013). Early school leavers and nutrition: A needs assessment from a nutrition perspective. Dublin: Safefood, The Food Safety Promotion Board.

(1997). Curricular physical activity and academic performance. Pediatric Exercise Science, 9, 113–125.

, , , , & (1994). Academic skills and required physical education: The Trois Rivières experience. CAHPER Research Supplement, 1(1), 1–12.

, , , , & (2012). Physical activity and performance at school: A systematic review of the literature including a methodological quality assessment. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 166(1), 49.

, , , , , (2005). Evidence based physical activity for school-age youth. Journal of Pediatrics, 146, 732–737.

, , , , , & (2005). Evidence-based physical activity for school-aged youth. Journal of Pediatrics, 146(6), 732–7.

(2005). Physical activity and student performance at school. Journal of School Health, 75(6), 214–218.

, , & (1992). Intelligence and educational level in relation to body mass index of adult males. Human Biology, 64, 99–106.

, , , , & (2012). Physical activity and self-determination theory: A systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 78, 2–30.

(2013). Retrieved from

(2011). The exercise effect. Monitor on Psychology, 42, 48–54.

(2011). Global recommendations on physical activity for health. Copenhagen: World Health Organization.

(2006). Promoting physical activity and active living in urban environments – the role of local governments. Copenhagen: World Health Organization.

, & (2009). The role of family and community in extracurricular activity participation: A developmental approach to promoting youth participation in positive activities during the high school years. In L. Shumow (Ed.) Promising practices for family and community involvement during high school (27–51). Charlotte: Information Age Publishing.