The Relationship between Physical Activity, Weight, and Academic Achievement
Understanding the relationship between physical activity, body weight, and academic achievement can help provide schools and organizations with the evidence needed to appropriately design academic and physical activity programming.
At this point, evidence suggests a positive relationship between physical activity and grade point average, rate of learning, classroom behavior, as well as cognitive, social, and motor skill development. Research also suggests that heavier children have greater risk for school absenteeism than their peers.
Data is still scarce and inconclusive regarding the relationship between body weight and academic achievement. This section includes literature investigating the relationship between physical activity, body weight, and academic performance.
- Study results show statistically significant relationships between fitness and academic achievement, though the direction of causation is not known (Chomitz, et al., 2009).
- Data analyzed in this study indicate that additional curricular emphasis on physical education may result in small absolute gains in grade point average and strongly suggest a relative increase in performance per unit of academic teaching time (Trudeau, et al., 2008).
- Observations show a positive association between academic performance and physical activity (Trudeau, et al., 2008).
- Data suggest that heavier children have greater risk for school absenteeism than their normal-weight peers (Geier, et al, 2007).
- This study suggests that schools have the potential to influence habitual physical activity among children by encouraging increased participation in extracurricular sport activities, by favoring active commuting to school, and by providing exercise equipment and supervision for youth in their neighborhoods (Trudeau, et al., 2005).
- Available data suggest that the rate of academic learning per unit of class time is enhanced in physically active students (Shephard, 1997).
Academic Research Articles and Findings:
- This downloadable report from the Institute of Medicine is a compilation of information around increasing physical activity in K-12 schools.
- The report is the product of the IOM’s Committee on Physical Activity and Physical Education in the School Environment, which was formed to review the current status of physical activity and physical education in the school environment and to examine the influences of physical activity and physical education on the short- and long-term physical, cognitive and brain, and psychosocial health and development of children and adolescents.
- The report includes a great deal of evidence about the impacts of physical activity on children’s health and academic performance.
- The report also concludes with a chapter of recommendations, that is inclusive of many areas supportive of Safe Routes to School, including shared use agreements to open school facilities to the communities, school siting policies that encourage locating schools within neighborhoods, and ensuring safe active travel routes for students.
National Research Council. Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2013.
- The goal of the study was to test students for cross-sectional and longitudinal associations between objectively measured free-living physical activity (PA) and academic attainment in adolescents.
- Data from 4755 participants (45% male) with valid measurement of PA (total volume and intensity) by accelerometry at age 11 from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) was examined. Data linkage was performed with nationally administered school assessments in English, Math and Science at ages 11, 13 and 16.
- Results: After controlling for total volume of PA, the percentage of time spent in moderate-vigorous intensity physical activity (MVPA) predicted increased performance in English assessments in both sexes, taking into account confounding variables. In Math at 16 years, percentage of time in MVPA predicted increased performance for males (standardised β=0.11, 95% CI 0.00 to 0.22) and females (β=0.08, 95% CI 0.00 to 0.16). For females the percentage of time spent in MVPA at 11 years predicted increased Science scores at 11 and 16 years (β=0.14 (95% CI 0.03 to 0.25) and 0.14 (0.07 to 0.21), respectively). The correction for regression dilution approximately doubled the standardised β coefficients.
- The findings suggest a long-term positive impact of MVPA on academic attainment in adolescence.
Booth, J N, Leary, S D, Joinson, C, Ness, A R, Tomporowski, P D, Boyle, J M, & Reilly, J J. (2013). Associations between objectively measured physical activity and academic attainment in adolescents from a UK cohort. British Journal of Sports Medicine. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092334
- There is a growing trend of inactivity among children, which may not only result in poorer physical health, but also poorer cognitive health. Previous research has shown that lower fitness has been related to decreased cognitive function for tasks requiring perception, memory, and cognitive control as well as lower academic achievement.
- Researchers investigated the relationship between aerobic fitness, learning, and memory on a task that involved remembering names and locations on a fictitious map. Different learning strategies and recall procedures were employed to better understand fitness effects on learning novel material.
- Forty-eight 9–10 year old children (n = 24 high fit; HF and n = 24 low fit; LF) performed a task requiring them to learn the names of specific regions on a map, under two learning conditions in which they only studied (SO) versus a condition in which they were tested during study (TS). The retention day occurred one day after initial learning and involved two different recall conditions: free recall and cued recall.
- Results: There were no differences in performance at initial learning between higher fit and lower fit participants. However, during the retention session higher fit children outperformed lower fit children, particularly when the initial learning strategy involved relatively poor recall performance (i.e., study only versus test-study strategy).
- Conclusions: We interpret these novel data to suggest that fitness can boost learning and memory of children and that these fitness-associated performance benefits are largest in conditions in which initial learning is the most challenging. Such data have important implications for both educational practice and policy.
Raine LB, Lee HK, Saliba BJ, Chaddock-Heyman L, Hillman CH, et al. . (2013). The Influence of Childhood Aerobic Fitness on Learning and Memory. PLoS ONE, 8(9), e72666. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072666
- Gross and fine motor skills and cognitive performance in obese and overweight children were compared to healthy weight children.
- Participants were 1,543 children (797 boys and 746 girls) ages 43 to 84 months, attending childcare centers in Munich, Germany.
- According to German Body Mass Index (BMI) standards for age and sex, 4.6% of the children were classified as obese (percentile greater or equal 97), 6.8% as overweight (percentile greater or equal 90 and less than 97), 5.9% as underweight (percentile less than 10), and 83.1% as being of healthy weight.
- Dependent variables were physical characteristics (height, weight, skinfold thickness), physical fitness (standing broad jump, shuttle run, hanging), body coordination (balancing forward, balancing backward, lateral jump, hopping), manual dexterity (right and left hand), and cognitive performance (intelligence, verbal ability, concentration).
- Results showed:
- Higher proportions of children from lower socioeconomic and immigrant backgrounds were overweight.
- There was no association between weight and sex.
- Overweight children showed lower performance on gross motor skills (coordination and fitness), manual dexterity, and intelligence compared to healthy weight children, even after controlling for the effects of social class and immigration status.
Krombholz, H. (2013). Motor and cognitive performance of overweight preschool children. Percept Mot Skills, 116(1), 40-57.
- Physical activity is associated with improved affective experience and enhanced cognitive processing. Potential age differences in the degree of benefit, however, are poorly understood because most studies examine either younger or older adults.
- The present study examined age differences in cognitive performance and affective experience immediately following a single bout of moderate exercise.
- Methods: Participants (144 community members aged 19 to 93) were randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions:
- exercise (15 min of moderate intensity stationary cycling) or
- control (15 min completing ratings of neutral IAPS images).
- Before and after the manipulation, participants completed tests of working memory and momentary affect experience was measured.
- Results suggest that exercise is associated with increased levels of high-arousal positive affect (HAP) and decreased levels of low-arousal positive affect (LAP) relative to control condition.
- Age moderated the effects of exercise on LAP, such that younger age was associated with a drop in reported LAP postexercise, whereas the effects of exercise on HAP were consistent across age.
- Exercise also led to faster recall times on a working memory task than the control condition across age. Self-reported negative affect was unchanged.
- Overall, findings suggest that exercise may hold important benefits for both affective experience and cognitive performance regardless of age.
Hogan, C. L., Mata, J., & Carstensen, L. L. (2013). Exercise holds immediate benefits for affect and cognition in younger and older adults. Psychol Aging, 28(2), 587-594. doi: 10.1037/a0032634
- This study examined the association between physical fitness and academic achievement and determined the influence of socioeconomic status (SES) on the association between fitness and academic achievement in school-aged youth.
- Overall, 1,701 third-, sixth-, and ninth-grade students from 5 school districts participated in the assessments.
- Fitness was assessed using FITNESSGRAM (aerobic fitness, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition). Results were used to determine individual fitness scores.
- Academic achievement was measured by standardized tests for Math (all grades), English (all grades), and Social Studies (sixth and ninth grades only).
- The SES was determined using eligibility for free and reduced lunch program.
- There were no significant differences between fitness groups for Math and English in third-grade students.
- Sixth- and ninth-grade students with high fitness scored significantly better on Math and Social Studies tests compared with less fit students.
- Lower SES students scored significantly worse on all tests.
- Muscular strength and muscular endurance were significantly associated with academic achievement in all grades.
- Conclusions: Compared with all other variables, SES appears to have the strongest association with academic achievement. However, it also appears that high fitness levels are positively associated with academic achievement in school-aged youth.
Coe, D. P., Peterson, T., Blair, C., Schutten, M. C., & Peddie, H. (2013). Physical fitness, academic achievement, and socioeconomic status in school-aged youth. J Sch Health, 83(7), 500-507. doi: 10.1111/josh.12058
- This study examined the association between fitness change and subsequent academic performance in Taiwanese schoolchildren from 7th grade to 9th grade.
- The 7th graders from 1 junior high school district participated in this study (N = 669).
- Academic performance was extracted from school records at the end of each grade.
- Cardiovascular (CV) fitness, sit-and-reach flexibility, bent-leg curl-ups, and height and weight for calculating body mass index (BMI) were assessed at the start of each grade.
- The results showed that improvement in CV fitness, but not muscular endurance or flexibility, is significantly related to greater academic performance. A weak and nonsignificant academic-BMI relationship was seen.
- Conclusion: CV fitness exhibits stronger longitudinal associations with academic performance than other forms of fitness or BMI for adolescents
Chen LJ, Fox KR, Ku PW, Taun CY. (2013). Fitness change and subsequent academic performance in adolescents. J Sch Health, 83(9), 631-638. doi: 10.1111/josh.12075
- The intervention focused on increasing the time and intensity of Physical Education (PE), on adolescents' cognitive performance and academic achievement.
- A 4-month group-randomized controlled trial was conducted in 67 adolescents from South-East Spain, in 2007.
- Three classes were randomly allocated into control group (CG), experimental group 1 (EG1) and experimental group 2 (EG2). CG received usual PE (two sessions/week), EG1 received four PE sessions/week and EG2 received four PE sessions/week of high intensity.
- Cognitive performance (non-verbal and verbal ability, abstract reasoning, spatial ability, verbal reasoning and numerical ability) was assessed by the Spanish Overall and Factorial Intelligence Test, and academic achievement by school grades.
- Results: All the cognitive performance variables, except verbal reasoning, increased more in EG2 than in CG (all P < 0.05). Average school grades (e.g., mathematics) increased more in EG2 than in CG. Overall, EG2 improved more than EG1, without differences between EG1 and CG.
- Conclusions: Increased PE can benefit cognitive performance and academic achievement. This study contributes to the current knowledge by suggesting that the intensity of PE sessions might play a role in the positive effect of physical activity on cognition and academic success.
- Future studies involving larger sample sizes should confirm or contrast these preliminary findings.
Ardoy, D. N., Fernandez-Rodriguez, J. M., Jimenez-Pavon, D., Castillo, R., Ruiz, J. R., & Ortega, F. B. (2013). A Physical Education trial improves adolescents' cognitive performance and academic achievement: the EDUFIT study. Scand J Med Sci Sports. doi: 10.1111/sms.12093
- Obesity and physical inactivity may have a negative impact on cognitive function and academic achievement. This prospective study investigated whether childhood motor function predicts later academic achievement via physical activity, fitness, and obesity.
- The study sample included 8,061 children from the Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1986. Baseline data included parent-reported motor function at age 8 years old. This was then compared with self-reported physical activity, predicted cardiorespiratory fitness (cycle ergometer test), obesity (body weight and height), and academic achievement (grades) at age 16 years old.
- Structural equation models with unstandardized (B) and standardized (β) coefficients were used to test whether, and to what extent, physical activity, cardiorespiratory fitness, and obesity at age 16 mediated the association between childhood motor function and adolescents’ academic achievement.
- Physical activity was associated with a higher grade-point average, and obesity was associated with a lower grade-point average in adolescence.
- Furthermore, compromised motor function in childhood had a negative indirect effect on adolescents’ academic achievement via physical inactivity (B = –0.023, 95% confidence interval = –0.031, –0.015) and obesity (B = –0.025, 95% confidence interval = –0.039, –0.011), but not via cardiorespiratory fitness.
- These results suggest that physical activity and obesity may mediate the association between childhood motor function and adolescents’ academic achievement.
- Compromised motor function in childhood may represent an important factor driving the effects of obesity and physical inactivity on academic underachievement.
Marko T. Kantomaa, Emmanuel Stamatakis, Anna Kankaanpää, Marika Kaakinen, Alina Rodriguez, Anja Taanila, Timo Ahonen, Marjo-Riitta Järvelin, and Tuija Tammelin. (2013). Physical activity and obesity mediate the association between childhood motor function and adolescents’ academic achievement. PNAS 2013 110(5), 1917-1922. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1214574110
- Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012;166(1):49-55. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.716
- The purpose of this study is to describe the prospective relationship between physical activity and academic performance.
- Prospective studies for this systematic review were identified from searches in PubMed, PsycINFO, Cochrane Central, and Sportdiscus from 1990 through 2010. Studies were selected by screening the titles and abstracts for eligibility, rating the methodological quality of the studies, and extracting the data. Studies had to report at least one physical activity or physical fitness measurement during childhood or adolescence. Studies also had to report at least one academic performance or cognition measure during childhood or adolescence.
- This systematic review identified 10 observational and 4 intervention studies. The quality score of the studies ranged from 22% to 75%. Two studies were scored as high quality. Methodological quality scores were particularly low for the reliability and validity of the measurement instruments. Based on the results of the best-evidence synthesis, there was evidence of a significant longitudinal positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance.
- Participation in physical activity is positively related to academic performance in children. Because only 2 high-quality studies were found, future high-quality studies are needed to confirm our findings. These studies should thoroughly examine the dose-response relationship between physical activity and academic performance as well as explanatory mechanisms for this relationship.
Singh, A., L. Uijtdewilligen, et al. (2012). "Physical Activity and Performance at School: A Systematic Review of the Literature Including a Methodological Quality Assessment." Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 166(1): 49-55.
- This study examined associations of fitness and fatness with cognitive processes, academic achievement, and behavior, independent of demographic factors, at the baseline of an exercise trial.
- Overweight, sedentary but otherwise healthy 7–11 year olds (N = 170) participated in a study of health, cognition and achievement in the Augusta, GA area from 2003–2006. Children underwent evaluations of fatness and fitness, psychological assessments of cognition and academic achievement, and behavior ratings by parents and teachers. Partial correlations examined associations of fitness and fatness with cognitive and achievement scores and behavior ratings, controlling for demographic factors.
- Fitness was associated with better cognition, achievement and behavior, and fatness with worse scores. Specifically, executive function, mathematics and reading achievement, and parent ratings of child behavior were related to fitness and fatness. Teacher ratings were related to fitness.
- These results extend prior studies by providing reliable, standardized measures of cognitive processes, achievement, and behavior in relation to detailed measures of fitness and fatness. However, cross-sectional associations do not necessarily indicate that improving one factor, such as fatness or fitness, will result in improvements in factors that were associated with it. Thus, randomized clinical trials are necessary to determine the effects of interventions.
Davis, C. L. and S. Cooper (2011). "Fitness, fatness, cognition, behavior, and academic achievement among overweight children: Do cross-sectional associations correspond to exercise trial outcomes?" Preventive Medicine 52, Supplement(0): S65-S69.
- The aim of this cross-sectional study is to examine the associations between active commuting to school and cognitive performance in adolescents in five cities (Granada, Madrid, Murcia, Santander, and Zaragoza) in Spain.
- In this study, a total of 1700 adolescents (892 girls) aged 13 to 18.5 years were participated by self-reporting their mode and duration of transportation to school and their participation in extracurricular physical activity.
- Cognitive performance (verbal, numeric, and reasoning abilities and an overall score) was measured by the Spanish version of the SRA Test of Educational Ability.
- Active commuting to school was associated with better cognitive performance (all P < .05) in girls but not in boys, independent of potential confounders including participation in extracurricular physical activity. In addition, adolescent girls who spent more than 15 minutes actively commuting to school had better scores in 3 of the 4 cognitive performance variables (all P < .05) than those who spent less time actively commuting to school ( 15 minutes) as well as better scores in all of the cognitive performance variables (all P < .001) than girls inactively commuting.
- Active commuting to school and its duration may positively influence cognitive performance in adolescent girls.
Martinez-Gomez, D., J. R. Ruiz, et al. (2011). "Active Commuting to School and Cognitive Performance in Adolescents: The AVENA Study." Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 165(4): 300-305.
- A nationwide survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control in 2007 reported 65% of high school students did not meet the recommendation that youth participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week (CDC, 2008). While research has focused its attention primarily on bodily health, growing evidence supports the benefits of physical activity on brain health (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008).
- Physical activity is important and many adolescents are not meeting the recommendation, therefore, it is important to explore the adolescent perceptions to understand which factors influence physical activity participation. The significance of this study is to gain a better understanding of adolescent perceptions to explain the role physical activity plays on academic achievement. The intent is to provide additional insight into improving educational and community programs and policies to increase physical activity among adolescents.
- A two-phase explanatory mixed methods design was used. In the first quantitative phase, descriptive statistics, correlations, and two-way ANOVAs were conducted. Results from the study of 208 secondary adolescents from a Midwestern setting indicated that physical activity does not have a significant relationship with academic achievement. However, two-way ANOVA results did provide support for the existence of differences in ecological factors influencing physical activity and academic achievement.
- In the second qualitative phase, extreme case sampling was used to select participants for focus group interviews. Analysis of the third research question did reveal substantive differences in perceptions of physical activity and academic achievement between each of the four extreme groups. Themes included: enjoyment, motivation, self-efficacy, perceived feelings, health, social influences, support, environment, academics, and barriers.
- A connection of the quantitative and qualitative results found social influences, self-efficacy, support, environment, academics, and motivation the greatest influences statistically and substantively on physical activity influences. The fourth analysis suggested more students feel there is a relationship between physical activity and academic achievement. The fifth analysis provides suggestions for adolescents, parents, schools and the community how to increase physical activity participation among adolescents.
Hylok, M. J. (2011). “Exploring student perceptions to explain the relationship between physical activity and academic achievement in adolescents: A mixed methods study.”