Is There a Relationship between Physical Fitness and Academic Achievement? Positive Results from Public School Children in the Northeastern United States

Article excerpt

Increased public attention to the rise in childhood obesity has resulted in a sharper focus on the role of food and physical activity in the academic environment. Healthy People 2010 goals advocate increasing the proportion of schools requiring daily physical education (PE) for all students and increasing the proportion of adolescents who participate in daily school-based PE to 50%. (1) However, simultaneous pressures to meet academic achievement testing thresholds legislated by the federal "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001" has required some school administrators to shift resources away from PE toward time on academics. Some 14% of school districts report decreasing PE time to accommodate more Math and English. (2) In 1991, 41.6% of high school students participated in daily PE compared with 28.4% in 2003. (3) The consequences of this trend away from school-based PE on students' physical activity or fitness are not fully understood nor are the consequences to academic achievement. Physical fitness and physical activity have been shown to have positive effects on cognition and concentration. (4) To date, while some published evidence positively links physical activity, fitness, or PE to academic performance in the classroom, few studies have utilized standardized fitness and academic achievement scores to examine these relationships. (5,6)

A potential relationship of physical fitness to cognitive function may be explained by both physiological and psychological mechanisms. Results from animal studies show that physical activity stimulates neural development including a greater density of neuronal synapses (7) and higher capillary volume. (8) Physical activity is also consistently related to higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of anxiety and stress--each of which has been associated with enhanced academic performance. (9-11) In reviews of physical activity and academic performance, researchers concluded that student attention was likely to be greater in an active rather than in a sedentary student. This may facilitate favorable interactions between the learning environment and the cognitive development. (12,5,6)

Yet, the question remains as to whether the level of physical fitness can be directly linked to students' academic performance on standardized achievement tests. Intervention trial results have been mixed. Some have shown a significant positive relationship between PE time and class grades, (13) while others have noted no differences in academic performance. (14,15) Cross-sectional analyses have demonstrated positive associations between physical fitness and academic performance. (16,17) For example, investigators in Illinois found that students' total fitness, as measured by passing all 5 components of the Fitnessgram, positively correlated with academic achievement, measured by the standardized Illinois State Achievement Test, particularly Mathematics and Science. (18)

Few studies have used standardized fitness measures and standardized test scores in large urban populations or examined the relationship of academic achievement and fitness among elementary and middle school students. To help fill this research gap, we examined the relationship between standardized measures for both fitness and academic achievement, adjusting for important demographic variables known to influence academic achievement using a large cohort of diverse urban students in fourth through eighth grade. Our study aimed to determine the relationship between physical fitness as measured in 5 domains, and standardized achievement as measured on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) Math and English components in fourth-, sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade public school children.


Setting Subjects/Data Collection

The setting for the study was the Cambridge Public School Department (CPSD), a racially and economically diverse urban public school district. …