Activity provides wide-ranging lifelong benefits

September 12, 2016
Vicki Harber

It used to be that literacy meant one thing: the ability to read and write. Nowadays, scientific literature is using the term to describe competence or knowledge in a wide range of other areas, such as health, computers, finance and technology, to name a few. The term physical literacy, although first reported in the 1930s, has become another one that has surged in popularity since the 1990s.

Just as the basic building blocks of language literacy and numeracy are the ABCs and 123s that every child learns, the basic building block of physical literacy is movement. Movement categories include locomotor (moving one’s body through space), nonlocomotor (a movement whereby a person remains stationary, eg twisting or turning) and object manipulation (throwing, catching, kicking) in different physical and social environments.

As the substrate of all physical activity, movement is expressed in many ways and serves a multitude of short- and long-term outcomes. However, for the most part, physical activity has been narrowly branded as increasing fitness, managing body composition and helping athletes win. This “fit, fat, first” paradigm ignores the broader, holistic contributions of physical activity toward human development.

In the article “Physical Activity: An Underestimated Investment in Human Capital?”, a research team lead by Richard Bailey of Liverpool John Moores University presents a novel framework called the Human Capital Model (HCM). This model links physical activity with various aspects of human development, proposing that the outcomes of physical activity can be framed as investments in the following categories: emotional, financial, individual, intellectual, physical and social.

Viewed with the HCM lens, physical literacy expands the potential for holistic human development. In a recent article in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, Charles Corbin of Arizona State University included the above table outlining the characteristics most commonly related to physical literacy, which shows a good example of holistic human development.

Regarding the delivery of quality physical literacy experiences, researcher Dean Dudley of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia reminds us in a recent article that these outcomes do not exist as separate or independent curricular pursuits. Physical literacy lives in the entire curriculum, not just in phys ed class, he notes. Teachers should not “cherry-pick” a particular outcome that they believe is more important; the scope of physical literacy is an integrated approach that requires support from the entire curriculum. Successful implementation in schools would establish a meaningful context for physical literacy to be explored and championed within the broader school community.

Girl power
So why is this particularly important for girls? Just like boys, physically active girls experience numerous physical and physiological benefits. However, when using the HCM lens, girls are more likely to display positive body weight management skills, have increased potential to develop leadership skills, show determination and be less reliant on others to establish their self-worth.

Other reports show reduced rates of teenage pregnancy, depression and suicide. Not only will a girl personally benefit from quality physical activity, she will also become an asset to her community. She is more likely to establish functional and successful relationships while making positive future contributions to the workforce. Making an investment in programs for girls to become and remain physically active makes sense; it will lead to an enduring impact on their own health and well-being as well as that of the communities where they live, learn, work and play.

Characteristics most commonly associated with physical literacy



Motor skills

- Motor skill
- Physical/movement competence
- Movement economy, efficiency

Cognitive skills

- Knowledge: principles, concepts, strategies
- Understanding, problem solving
- Communication, application, analysis
- Psychosocial/cognitive
- Self-management skills

Physical activity

- Engages in health-enhancing physical activity
- Has movement experience

Physical fitness

- Health-related fitness
- Skill-related fitness

Values physical activity

- Values for health, enjoyment, challenge and self-expression


- Intrinsic motivation


- Movement confidence
- Body awareness
- Self-confidence
- Self-efficacy

Interaction with others

- Social support
- Social interaction
- Creative expression

Perception of environment

- Awareness of environment and ability to adapt


- Responsible personal and social behaviour
- Respect for self and others

Responsibility for engagement for life

- Application of literacy skills and characteristics throughout life

Source: Charles Corbin

Dr. Vicki Harber is a professor emeritus in the faculty of physical education & recreation at the University of Alberta and a member of the Canadian Sport for Life leadership team.

Bailey R, C Hillman, S Arent and A Petitpas. 2013. “Physical Activity: An Underestimated Investment in Human Capital?” Journal of Physical Activity & Health 10: 289–308.

Sport for Life Society. 2015. “Canada’s Physical Literacy Consensus Statement.” Sport for Life Society website. (accessed August 18, 2016).

Corbin C. 2016. “Implications of Physical Literacy for Research and Practice: A Commentary.” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 87(1): 14–27.

Dudley D. 2015. “A Conceptual Model of Observed Physical Literacy.” The Physical Educator 72: 236–260.