Can exercise make children smarter? Researchers think there is a link. In a cross-sectional study, published in the January 2009 issue of the
researchers investigated the relationship between fitness levels and academic performance of children, in grades four through eight, from the Cambridge Public School District in Massachusetts. Data from the 2004-2005 school year regarding students' standardized test scores, fitness levels and Body Mass Index (BMI) values were evaluated.
Academic performance was measured using the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) achievements tests in Mathematics and English. Physical fitness was assessed from standardized fitness tests (cardiovascular endurance, abdominal strength, flexibility, upper body strength, and agility) adapted from the Amateur Athletic Union (www.presidentschallenge.org/educators/program_details/physical_fitness_test.aspx
) and Fitnessgram (www.cooperinst.org/products/grams/index.cfm
They found that there was a significant positive relationship between fitness levels and math and english scores achieved on the MCAS when gender, race, BMI, socioeconomic status, and grade level were held constant. The relationship was strongest between mathematics and fitness achievement. The odds of passing the math portion of the MCAS increased by 38% for each one-unit increase that occurred in the number of fitness tests passed by the students. Although a weaker association was evident for the english portion of the MCAS, it was still statistically significant. The researchers found that the odds of a student passing this portion increased by 24% for each one-unit increase in the number of fitness tests passed.
The researchers do not know why a stronger relationship exists between fitness and math performance than that between fitness and english. They also note that the role fitness plays in enhancing academic performance is not yet fully understood. However, they offer some probable factors. First, a child's level of motivation may play a role. The assummption is that a highly motivated child is more likely to strive to excel in both academics and athletics or other fitness-related activities. Second, they suggest that the overall health (appropriate weight for age, better nutritional status, and participation in physical activity) of the child may be a factor. The researchers also indicate that better fitness may lead to better concentration and behavior in the classroom resulting in greater academic achievement. Another possible factor is the association between physical activity and improved mental health. It is possible that if a child is more relaxed it would have a positive effect on his/her performance in school. Lastly, the researchers suggest that physical activity may affect how the brain functions, improving cognitive function (refer to my posting "Fit Body, Fit Brain").
Although the researchers acknowledge that further research is needed to gain greater insight into the relationship between exercise and academic performance, they contend that their findings have great implications for both the school and home setting. They suggest that school officials should consider ways to integrate physical activity into the school day, whether it be through increasing time spent in physical education classes and/or time on the playground during recess. Parents/caregivers should consider ways to incorporate physical activity either before or after the school day.
Chomitz VR, Slining MM, McGowan RJ, Mitchell SE, Dawson GF, Hacker KA. Is there a relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement? Positive results from public school children in the northeastern United States. J SCH Health.2009;79:30-37.