|Fit Kids Do Better in the Classroom|
|Written by Diana V. Forest|
The physical health benefits of long-term regular physical activity are well known. Now, a flurry of research studies shows that there is a link between exercise and mental performance. While much of the research has focused on older adults, recent studies are showing that there is a strong relationship between student academic achievement and physical fitness, something that many educators have suspected for some time.
This is not to suggest that swimming laps or playing basketball will make a student smarter; but there appears to be a fitness-academic achievement correlation that is worthy of attention.
A study conducted by the California Department of Education matched student scores from the Stanford Achievement Test with results of a state-mandated physical fitness assessment. Using a fitness evaluation tool that is highly regarded by physical education researchers, the fitness levels of students in grades five, seven, and nine were assessed. Student fitness measurements were taken in five major health-related areas: aerobic capacity (cardiovascular endurance), body fat composition, abdominal strength and flexibility, upper body strength and endurance, and overall flexibility.
According to the description of the study that appeared in the Journal of Exercise Physiology earlier this year, reading and mathematics scores from the Stanford Achievement Test were matched with fitness assessment scores of 353,000 fifth graders, 322,000 seventh graders, and 279,000 ninth graders.
Noteworthy findings from the study include:
Another study conducted by Darla Castelli and Charles Hillman, both professors of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examined the relationship between age and physical fitness on attention and working memory among groups of fit and sedentary children and fit and sedentary adults.
After using the same fitness assessment tool that was used in the California study to measure fitness levels of the study subjects, the researchers observed and recorded the subjects’ ability to recognize, respond to, and discriminate between different visual stimuli.
When the researchers measured brain activation, “we found that fit children allocated more resources toward identifying stimuli, and also processed stimuli faster,” Hillman said.
In summarizing their findings, Hillman added, “Behaviorally, these effects showed up in that these fit children made fewer errors than sedentary ones. In terms of response speed, the fit children were still slower than fit and sedentary adults, but were faster than sedentary children.”
Castelli is hopeful that if scientists can demonstrate that increased levels of physical activity and exercise have a positive effect on children’s physical health and their ability to succeed academically, more effort will be made to integrate the fitness component into school programs.
Researchers from both studies expressed caution that more research is needed. It cannot be inferred that physical fitness causes academic achievement to improve. It is more likely that physical and mental processes influence each other in ways that are not fully clear.
In the meantime, tennis, anyone?
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