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Creative Education, 2010, 1, 58-61
doi:10.4236/ce.2010.11009 Published Online June 2010 (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ce)
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
Physical Activity Improves Mental Rotation
Petra Jansen, Stefanie Pietsch
Institute of Sport Science, University of Regensburg, Regensburg, Germany.
Email: petra.jansen@psk, uni-regensburg.de
Received December 23rd, 2009; revised February 28th, 2010; accepted April 1st, 2010.
Even there seemed to be general knowledge that physical activity enhanced spatial cognitive performance almost none
experimental studies on this influence exist. For that the influence of physical activity on mental rotation performance is
investigated in this study. Mental rotation is the ability to imagine how an object would look if rotated away from the
original orientation. Two groups of 44 students of educational science each solved a psychometrical mental rotation
task with three-dimensional block figures. After this, the participants of the physical activity group took part in a sport
lesson, whereas the participants of the cognitive activity group attended an oral lesson of kinematics. Both lessons took
45 minutes. Thereafter, all participants solved the mental rotation task again. The results showed that the participants
of the physical activity group improved their mental rotation performance whereas the participants of the cognitive
activity showed no improvement.
Keywords: Physical and Cognitive Performance, Pedagogic Implication
It is the main goal of this paper to investigate the influ-
ence of physical activity on cognitive performance, es-
pecially on spatial cognition. This relation was already
formulated by Piaget . In recent developmental re-
search it is postulated that activity dependent multi- mo-
dal experience is a core mechanism creating develop-
mental change . This postulated relation is also evi-
dent in psychological research, where the relation be-
tween motor development and cognitive development is
investigated in more detail in infancy  as well as in
older adults . Furthermore it was shown, that a dys-
function in motor development is often associated with a
dysfunction in cognitive development and vice versa
[5-7]. In sport science, a meta-analysis examined the
relationship between motor and cognitive development
[8,9] and revealed a positive correlation even though the
results are, as a rule, restricted to adults.
This evidence from educational, psychological and
sport science, is confirmed by the specific assumption
 that motor development and movement experience
are relevant factors for cognitive performance, especially
for spatial ability . Spatial abilities are cognitive
processes composed of visualization, orientation and
mental rotation . Within these factors, mental rota-
tion, i.e., the ability to imagine how an object would look
if rotated away from the orientation, in which it is actu-
ally presented , is an important and well-investigated
factor. Spatial cognition is fundamentally relevant for
problem solving , mathematics  and science .
What is almost completely absent until now is the ex-
perimental investigation of physical activity on a spatial
cognition task. According to our knowledge, only one
study investigated the effect of a specific motor training
in adults on mental rotation ability . The authors pro-
vided evidence that a program of juggling training over a
period of three months improved mental rotation per-
formance in adults, compared to a control group that did
not receive any training. Because the physical activation
training in the former study lasted over three months, we
were interested if a short physical activation (45 minutes)
improved mental rotation as well. As a control group we
chose a kind of cognitive activation. Students had to lis-
ten to a theoretical lesson of physical activation while
they were allowed to ask something and to answer ques-
tions. Both groups were chosen because both were real
educational situations, which enhance the ecological va-
Because of the study of Jansen et al.  and the theo-
retical relation between motor and visual-spatial abilities
, it is assumed that students would profit more from a
physical activity lesson than from a theoretical lesson
Physical Activity Improves Mental Rotation Performance59
regarding their mental rotation ability. This hypothesis is
supported by studies of central nervous processes. Neu-
roscientific studies showed a motor cortex activation
during mental rotation  as well as an increasing plas-
ticity after training of juggling  in exactly that brain
area (intraparietal sulcus) which is involved in mental
rotation . This evidence gives a hint for the assumed
influence of physical activity on mental rotation per-
88 students of educational science with sport science as
the main subject participated, 43 males (mean age: 23.66
years) and 45 females (mean age: 22.46 years). The stu-
dents participated in the physical activity group (EG, 22
men and 22 females) or in the cognitive activity group,
(CG, 21 men and 23 females). All participants gave their
written consent for participation.
2.2 Material and Procedure
For the measurement of the mental rotation performance
the paper-pencil mental rotation test, MRT, (Version A)
redrawn by Peters et al. , which was originally de-
veloped by Vandenberg and Kuse  with figures cre-
ated by Shepard and Metzler , was used. This test
consists of two sets of 12 items each. Each item contains
respectively a target figure on the left side and four sam-
ple stimuli that show the target figure in rotated versions.
Two of the four sample stimuli were the same than the
target figure. Participants had to find out these two items,
which were the same. Figure 1 shows an example of the
In the original test of Peters et al. , the items were
presented to the participants on four DIN A-4 sheets with
six items per sheet and a 3-min deadline to solve a set of
12 items (6 min for the entire test). Instructions were
Figure 1. An example of two items used in the Mental Rota-
tion Test. The target figure is shown on the left and the four
sample stimuli are presented aside. Always two of these are
identical to the target figure but are rotated in depth
Figure 2. The difference score between the post- and prae-
mental rotation test. The figure shows that participants in
the physical activity group received more points in the Post
Mental rotation test than in the pre-test, whereas the par-
ticipants of the cognitive activity group did not. Error bars
indicate standard errors
given in written form, followed by three training items so
that participants became familiar with the task. The correct
solutions of these training items were shown at the end
of the page. Participants were instructed to attempt a
solution for all 12 items within three minutes.
In this study the original test was used but the second
set of 12 items was presented only after 45 minutes. In
these 45 minutes participants of the physical activity
group received physical activity lesson which comprises
different activities as running, jumping, rope skipping
and callisthenics. The participants of the cognitive activ-
ity group attended a lecture on kinematics, where they
were allowed to ask something and to answer questions.
The post mental rotation test was completed directly af-
ter the 45 minutes lasting physical or oral lesson.
2.3 Statistical Analysis
The standard scoring method by Peters et al.  was
used: One point was given if and only if both correct
sample stimuli of a target figure were marked correctly.
Thus, participants could obtain 24 points maximum, 12
points in each test (pre-test, before the activity, and
post-test after the activity).
Thus, a one-factorial design with the between-subject
factor group (EG: physical activity, CG: cognitive activ-
ity) was used. The dependent variable was 1) number of
points in the first time of the MRT, to reveal that there is
no difference between two groups at the beginning of the
test and 2) the difference between the two groups the
number of correctly answered items in the MRT-A be-
tween the post- and the pre-test.
There was no difference between the two groups in the
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. CE
Physical Activity Improves Mental Rotation Performance
first part of the MRT, F(1,87) = 0.294, n.s.
Regarding the difference score, an ANOVA revealed a
significant main effect of Group F(1,87) = 5.03, p < 0.05,
η2 = 0.06.
Figure 2 shows, that the participants from the physical
activity group (M = 0.73, SE = 0.31) improved their
mental rotation performance whereas the participants
from the cognitive activity (M = –0.28, SE = 0.29) group
This study indicated the relation between physical activ-
ity and mental rotation performance. Participants im-
proved their mental rotation performance after attending
a sport class for 45 minutes. They did not improve their
spatial performance when listening to an oral lesson be-
tween the two tests. Because we did not find an im-
provement in the cognitive activity group the post-pre
improvement in performance after physical activity can
not be expected from some kind of practice alone.
This study was a field experiment with a high eco-
logical validity and the most possible intern validity.
Both lessons were real educational settings. The lessons
were chosen because of their high comparability con-
cerning the duration, the time in the morning, they
started and the level of social participation. It was the
first step in a real educational setting investigating the
importance of physical activity on one specific cognitive
task. Further studies have to follow which examine the
relevant factors for the obtained results. A measurement
of physical and cognitive effort may be used in the fol-
This result might have important implications for dif-
ferent disciplines, for sport science, psychology and es-
pecially for education. For people working in sport sci-
ence it is important to see, that a sportive training does
have this supporting effect on a cognitive task. That
means in other words that sport might support not only
physical but also cognitive fitness. For cognitive psy-
chologists the assumed link between cognitive and motor
processes is supported. Furthermore, this study has prac-
tical implications for educational science: It supports the
claim for more physical activity in school, knowing that
also cognitive learning will be enhanced by that. If one
takes these results seriously school systems have to reas-
sess their school curricula. Does it make any sense to
have one cognitive lesson after the other one – for six to
ten hours the day? These results provide evidence that
physical activity between school lessons might be indis-
pensable to obtain optimal cognitive performance in
Mental rotation is only one cognitive task, there are a
lot of other ones like for example attention and memory
tasks. Beside this there seems to be a link between men-
tal rotation ability and math performance, as suggested
by the work of e.g. Casey, Nuttall and Pezaris .
Therefore, one might speculate that motor learning might
also enhance maths performance. First evidence comes
from a study of Nilges  who outlined 6 spatial abili-
ties, which mediated both physical and mathematical
learning. Further empirical studies should investigate this
relation between physical activity and mathematic per-
formance in more detail.
This is only one study investigating experimentally the
influence of physical activity on cognitive performance.
The advantage of this study is the real educational situa-
tion setting. Other studies have to follow where this in-
fluence is investigated in more detail. Is the effect still
reliable if the second mental rotation test is not presented
directly after the cognitive or physical activity? Is this
effect also evident in children at school-age? Does this
improvement hold true for different kinds of physical
activity? More studies in this area might have a great
influence on physical and cognitive education in schools.
This study was supported by the German Research foun-
dation. We thank Michael Peters for his friendly permis-
sion to use the Mental Rotation Test (MRT) in our work
group. We thank our student assistants for their help
during data acquisition.
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