Afterschool Focus: Exercise Does More than Get the Wiggles Out

Youth benefit from physical activity in multiple ways. Immediately after physical activity, school-aged children experience an increase in attention, memory, and concentration and a decrease in disruptive behaviors that may detract from learning. There are also long-term academic benefits of physical activity. A growing body of research finds a correlation between regular physical activity and improved grades and standardized test scores.1

Exercise can also enhance social and emotional development and improve physical outcomes for students. Physical activity can decrease and prevent conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression while improving one’s mood and sense of well-being. Research has found that students who participate in physical activity can experience improved confidence and self-efficacy. Moreover, participation in activities such as organized sports can foster leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, goal setting, and resilience.2 Finally, physical activity reduces the risk for chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, obesity, and metabolic syndrome while improving aerobic capacity, muscle and bone strength, and flexibility. 

Physical Activity Standards and Practices for Afterschool Programs

As we do with all 21st CCLC programming, we encourage you to take an intentional approach to providing students with opportunities for physical activity. Below are some highlights from the National AfterSchool Association Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) Standards for Out-of-School Time. These standards can help you provide a safe and supportive environment for physical activity to keep the fun in playtime while helping students develop lifetime habits for healthy living. 

Design and provide developmentally appropriate and inclusive activities that provide students with the knowledge and skills to enjoy physical activities throughout their lives. Avoiding injury and enjoying physical activity are essential for students to develop lifelong habits of exercise. In addition, children have natural movement patterns that differ from adults, being naturally active in intermittent ways, especially during unstructured play. As they grow into adolescents, these patterns change, and they are able to play organized games and sports and sustain longer periods of activity.3

Plan specific time for physical activity. Whether it is unstructured play time, organized sports, or a few minutes of jumping and stretching, make sure these activities are part of your afterschool schedule.4

Offer daily outdoor physical activity. Research has found several benefits to playing outside: increased vitamin D, improved mood and concentration, and increased exercise, especially for children. 

Provide opportunities for cardio-respiratory, muscle-strengthening, and bone-strengthening activities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children and adolescents ages 6 to 17 years do 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. This should include aerobic activities, such as running, hopping, skipping, swimming, dancing, or bicycling; muscle-strengthening activities, such as climbing, playing tug-of-war, or lifting weights and working with resistance bands; and bone-strengthening activities such as running, jumping rope, basketball, tennis, or hopscotch. 5

Provide space for both structured and unstructured  physical activity. Through various activities, children and adolescents can spend active time with friends and supportive adults while exploring different forms of movement and exercise.

Offer non-competitive activities. Some students may not take to or thrive in organized sports. To ensure positive experiences and habits, youth should have experiences with non-competitive activities that do not require above-average athletic skills, including hiking, bicycling, yoga, dancing, and swimming.6These experiences can help students develop skills, confidence, and healthy habits.

Offer activities that are adaptable, accessible, and inclusive of students with all abilities, including physical, sensory, and intellectual disabilities. To ensure all students can participate in and enjoy exercises, allow students to modify activities. You can also adapt instructions and materials to fit different student needs. Be sure to get student input on adaptations.7

Integrate physical activities with academic or enrichment programming. Physical activity can be part of your afterschool program in the form of short breaks or energizers where students get out of their seats and spend a few minutes moving to chants or songs. You can also integrate simple activities into academic lessons, like having students do jumping jacks or toss a bean bag while they practice spelling words or multiplication tables, for example.8


Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) Standards 2.0 for Out-of-School Time (OST)

Alliance for a Healthier Generation resources for Out-of-School Time programs (free registration required)

You for Youth Webinar: Expanding Quality Health and Recreation Opportunities

BOKS — Free, research-based physical activity program for youth of all ages



Castelli, D.M., Barcelona, J.M., Calvert, H.G., & Hwang, J. (2015). Active education: Growing evidence on physical activity and academic performance. San Diego, CA: Active Living Research; 2015. Available at

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Classroom physical activity. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Inclusion in school physical education and activity. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from  [or]

Harvard Health Publishing. (2010, July). A prescription for better health: Go alfresco. Retrieved from

Institute of Medicine. (2013). Educating the student body: Taking physical activity and physical education to school. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved from

Schoolyard. (6 Apr, 2017). How to make your physical education class more inclusive. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Physical activity guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from



1Castelli, D.M., Barcelona, J.M., Calvert, H.G., & Hwang, J., 2015.

2Institute of Medicine, 2013.

3U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018.

4Harvard Health Publishing, 2010, July.

5U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018.

6U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018

7Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d., Schoolyard, 6 Apr, 2017.

8Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019.