Active Voice: Fitter, Smarter and Healthier Kids

By Luis B. Sardinha, Ph.D.

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Luís B. Sardinha, Ph.D., was trained in exercise and sports science, earning his Ph.D. from the faculty of human kinetics at University of Lisbon in Portugal. The focus of his research has been the development of methods of human body composition, and studying graded and dose-response relationships between sedentary behavior, physical activity and fitness with physiological attributes across the life span and related mechanisms. Currently, he is involved in forward-translation research comprising web-based outreach programs to influence children’s fitness and health.

This commentary presents the author’s views on the topic of a research article which he and his colleagues had published in the May 2016 issue of
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise® (MSSE).

Students with higher aerobic fitness tend to have an increased chance of reaching high academic achievement, compared to their unfit counterparts. Results from our laboratory, published in the May 2016 issue of MSSE and the published findings from others, especially from Dr. Charles Hillman’s group at the University of Illinois, have demonstrated the contribution of fitness, particularly aerobic fitness, to students’ grades and cognition skills. These results have contributed to a growing body of literature that has brought attention to the relationship between physical activity (or fitness) and academic performance.

Together with neighborhood design, socioeconomic conditions, social disadvantage/social disorganization, parental influence and social support are known to be key determinants that affect the physical activity of children and adolescents during growth and development. Most research related to physical activity and fitness with adults addresses health outcomes associated with chronic diseases. Those outcomes do have important consequences for youth, as in the case of obesity. However, these tend to emerge over a longer timeline and may justify turning attention to more immediate meaningful issues that also are relevant to their welfare. Indeed, children and adolescents’ current decisions are very much dependent on the fact that they lack the intellectual capabilities and behavioral skills to understand and give priority to behaviors that will only become relevant to them several years later. Interestingly enough, many families tend to exhibit similar attributes, emphasizing short-term outcomes and satisfaction with simply accepting social norms.

Academic achievement has a very strong impact on children and families. It is among the most relevant “result” that families pursue for their children. It is an everyday goal for children and their families. This means that the impact of physical activity and fitness on academic achievement is seldom appreciated or discussed. Instead, the messaging surrounding physical activity is less frequent and typically emphasizes its relevance to health. Therefore, academic achievement has the potential to be a very prominent motivational factor for children, adolescents and families to engage in physical activity and sports. It is also an important issue that can drive public policy— for instance, in the area of education.

The recognition that physical activity and sports participation may improve aerobic fitness, which then may favorably influence academic achievement, could facilitate family support and have a contagious effect on promoting greater physical activity behavior and engagement in sport behavior by children. In a time of increased social fragmentation in some school environments and other challenges to family resilience, it is necessary to invest in efforts to increase social cohesion and personal empowerment at the family and community levels. We strongly believe that more physical activity and sports should be part of any major efforts for social development. Fortunately, we now have further scientific evidence suggesting that fitter kids may be smarter. This provides more evidence for families to further encourage, transport, participate or watch their children participate in physical activity or sports. By the end of the day, this will result in more resilient and cohesive families.

Physical education teachers also should advocate, with parents, that schools provide more opportunities for children to participate in physical activity and sports. Teachers can connect with parents in several ways, such as during parent/teacher conferences and school board meetings and through systematic communication with parents, e.g. individual reports about health-related fitness assessment of the students. This information may improve support for physical activity from parents and could assist physical education teachers to deal with their mission of curbing the physical inactivity epidemic. It is exciting, indeed, that we have new descriptive and mechanistic information linking physical activity and fitness to academic achievement and some cognitive functions. These findings need replication in randomized controlled studies. However, even the current evidence is a strong argument for convergent and influential beliefs from physical education teachers, parents and kids to understand that physical activity should be an indispensable behavior in every kid’s daily life.