“A Sound Mind in a Sound Body”: Physical Fitness AND Academic Achievement!

Jane WardThe Greek philosopher Thales and the Roman poet Juvenal both wrote about the way in which physical health and mental health are intertwined, seeking the ideal of a “sound mind in a sound body.”

With children heading back to school and settling into their fall routines, schools continue to struggle with how to ensure that their students are able to achieve a sound mind in a sound body. For schools, academic achievement is measured by standardized testing focus on “reading, writing, and arithmetic,” and the “No Child Left Behind” education law of 2001 added pressures on school districts to perform in order to be funded.

A report issued by the Institute of Medicine, Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School, highlighted those pressures, finding that 44 percent of school administrators had cut significant time from physical education and recess to increase time spent in reading and math since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

A review of the research looking at the connections between fitness and academic achievement show that cutting physical activity can be detrimental to academic achievement.  Instead, research would support adding more physical activity before, during and after the school day to ensure kids are active, focused and ready to learn. Some key studies are highlighted below:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in their 2010 review summarize the academic benefits of physical fitness in children and youth.  Their recommendations include active travel to and from school.
  • The 2013 Institute of Medicine report Educating the student body: Taking physical activity and physical education to school includes a strong recommendation to increase physical activity opportunities throughout AND before and after the school day for improving both health and  academic achievement.  They suggest that this be done by a “whole of school approach,” not just during the physical education classes, and throughout a student’s waking hours by close partnerships in the community, to include active transportation to and from school.
  • More recently a published study of over 2.5 million Texas kindergarten through12th grade students showed a significant correlation with higher state standardized test scores and healthy student body weight measured as body mass index (BMI) and cardiorespiratory fitness measured with the established “FITNESSGRAM” test.
  • Lees and Hopkins in their 2013 systematic review article found that aerobic physical activity is positively associated with cognition, academic achievement, behavior, and psychosocial functioning outcomes.  
  • In their May 2014 review, Khan and Hillman conclude: “Achieving adequate physical activity and maintaining aerobic fitness in childhood may be a critical guideline to follow for physical as well as cognitive and brain health.”

Many of the above research selections specify active transportation programs as a winning strategy helping to achieve the necessary physical activity kids need each day—helping make the case for Safe Routes to School. As our Greek and Roman ancestors knew long ago: A sound mind in a sound body go together!   


Jane Ward, MD, MPH is our research advisor, responsible for updating our research section and blogging on research topics. She completed a career in the US Air Force as a pediatric ophthalmologist with a strong interest in international humanitarian work. Her lifelong interest in fitness and active living led her to pursue a Masters of Public Health with a focus on Physical Activity and the built environment. For her MPH internship in the spring of 2012, she bicycled cross-country advocating and fundraising for Safe Routes to School and the League of American Bicyclists Bicycle Friendly America programs. She is an Assistant Professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences and retains close ties with the George Washington University Department of Exercise Science. She enjoys bicycling for fun and transportation, triathlons, travel and spending time with family and friends on active vacations.

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