Active Voice: Fitness and Academic Achievement in Children – Not Necessarily a Straightforward Association

Active Voice: Fitness and Academic Achievement in Children – Not Necessarily a Straightforward Association

By Stephen D. Herrmann, Ph.D. and David Hansen, Ph.D.
Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Stephen D. Herrmann, Ph.D., is a researcher at Sanford Research in the Children’s Health Research Center and is the director of program development and training for profile by Sanford. His research is focused on understanding individual response to exercise and diet interventions— more specifically, why certain people respond positively to exercise and diet interventions and others do not. Dr. Herrmann is a member of ACSM.

David Hansen, Ph.D., is associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Education. His expertise is on adolescent development and learning in a variety of in and out-of-school settings, including the full range of organized youth activities (e.g., extracurricular, community-based programs). This commentary presents the views of Herrmann and Hansen on the topic of their research article, which they and their colleagues published in the December 2014 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise® (MSSE).

Finding an association between academic achievement and physical activity (PA) or aerobic fitness (fitness) would surprise few these days. In general, the research literature indicates higher PA and fitness tend to correlate with higher academic achievement, and vice versa. That is, children who are more physically active and those who are more aerobically fit tend to have higher academic achievement. This positive, linear association adds to a growing list of PA/fitness benefits for children’s health. But is this association of PA/fitness with academic achievement as straightforward—linear—as it seems? Is the association basically the same across subject matter? Furthermore, who benefits most academically by increased PA/fitness? These questions were the impetus for our recent publication in MSSE.

Our analyses were derived from baseline data from a larger, three-year randomized trial titled “Academic Achievement and Physical Activity across the Curriculum” (A+PAAC). Seventeen schools enrolled in A+PAAC with 687 2nd and 3rd grade children included in baseline assessments. Briefly, the goal of A+PAAC is to improve students’ academic achievement and health by incorporating 100 minutes/week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity into classroom lessons delivered by the A+PAAC trained teacher (click here for further details).

Here are the highlights of what we found. First, only fitness, not PA, was significantly associated with academic achievement and only for mathematics and spelling (no association with reading achievement). Fitness was measured by number of laps completed from the 20 meter shuttle run (PACER) laps. Second, the pattern of association for mathematics and spelling was not a straight line. Instead, a positively sloping line was found up to a particular fitness level for math (22 laps) and spelling (28 laps), but the line plateaued beyond those fitness levels. In percentiles, these laps translate into the 50th-75th fitness percentiles.

There are several implications of these findings worth noting. First, these findings are a cross-sectional snapshot of associations and do not indicate a cause-effect relationship. Further research is needed, in particular, to examine how changes in fitness may or may not influence this fitness/academic achievement relation. However, our findings do suggest that improving fitness for those children below the 50th fitness percentile could have substantial benefits for their achievement. The good news is that this level of fitness is achievable for most children. That said, we still understand very little about how fitness might produce such benefits. These findings do provide clear guidance on the next set of research questions we need to ask.

Despite emerging evidence that PA and fitness are associated with higher academic achievement, there has been a trend in recent years toward reducing physical education opportunities in schools, sometimes with the intent of increasing classroom academic time. This strategy could backfire, however, if it contributes to increased sedentary patterns that, over time, can decrease or limit improvements in fitness. Thus, one pressing question is whether increasing students’ fitness levels through greater PA, especially among those in the lower fitness percentiles, can help improve academic achievement. Thus, we suggest schools may benefit from a proactive approach and aim to increase opportunities for students to be active and promote fitness that will improve health and may improve academic achievement.