Children's Physical Fitness and Academic Performance

By Wittberg, Richard A.; Northrup, Karen L. et al. | American Journal of Health Education, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Children's Physical Fitness and Academic Performance


Wittberg, Richard A., Northrup, Karen L., Cottrel, Lesley, American Journal of Health Education


ABSTRACT

Background: Childhood obesity is a major public health threat. Increased fitness may have a positive influence on cognitive performance in both adults and children. Purpose: To examine which aspects of children's fitness assessment are associated with their performance on four different academic areas. Methods: FITNESSGRAM measures aerobic capacity, abdominal strength, upper body strength/endurance, flexibility, and trunk lift. Gender and a socio-economic status proxy were compared with mean group performance scores across four subscales: mathematics, reading/language arts, science, and social studies of a statewide standardized academic performance test on a sample of 968 5th grade students (50.7% male; mean age = 10.6 years). Results: Achievement test scores were significantly better for children who were in the Healthy Fitness Zone (HFZ) for aerobic capacity and abdominal strength tests when compared to children who were unable to achieve the healthy zone. Children in the HFZ for upper body strength performed significantly better in math. Children in the HFZ for flexibility performed significantly better in math and science. No differences were found in academic performance when children in the HFZ for trunk lift were compared to children not in the healthy zone. When all FITNESSGRAM measures were used in a full factorial ANOVA with Body Mass Index (BMI), gender and meal program (a proxy variable for socioeconomic status) as covariates, aerobic capacity was found to be the only fitness variable consistently appearing as important. It was always significant as a main effect variable while no other main effect fitness variable achieved significance for any WESTEST subject. Two-way, three-way, and four-way interactions always included aerobic fitness and no other fitness measure was universal in these interactions. Discussion: Whereas, aerobic fitness appears universally important in academic success, additional mechanisms may be at work due to the several interactions that achieved significance. The interactions may be an indication of the importance of overall fitness in addition to aerobic fitness. These findings support the development and implementation of childhood cardiovascular risk surveillance programs that not only evaluate children's overweight risks but also their fitness. Translation to Health Education Practice: Increased focus on ways to improve children's fitness levels may create the need to reevaluate current policy recommendations for children's physical education.

BACKGROUND

Childhood obesity is considered to be one of the major public health threats of the 21st century. (1) Since 1980, the percentage of children who are overweight has more than doubled, while rates among adolescents have more than tripled. (2) In 2004, 18.8% of 6- to 11-year-old children were overweight and 17.4% of 12- to 19-year-old adolescents were overweight. (2)

Childhood overweight has been shown to significantly affect a child's physical, social, and emotional development. A variety of physical health concerns known to be correlated with children's weight include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type II diabetes. (3) Studies have also shown that overweight children are more likely to be socially withdrawn, depressed, and anxious when compared to children of lower weight categories. (4-7) Less studied is the relationship between childhood overweight and cognitive functioning. (8-13)

Previous studies have established a relationship between childhood obesity and students' academic performance. A study by Ding, Lehrer, Rosenquist, and Audrain-McGovern revealed that obesity was associated with an average GPA that was 0.43 less than non-obese adolescents. (13) Further evidence was provided by Datar, Sturm, and Maganabossa who found significant differences in test scores by overweight status at the beginning of kindergarten and at the end of grade one. (9) These authors, however, argued that the differences in student academic performance scores could be explained by other individual characteristics such as parental education and home environment. …

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