It won’t be long before summer break is over and school is back in session. Parents are already buying supplies and clothes to get ready for the start of another school year. As households begin to shift from vacation mode to school routines and studies, new research suggests that children who are fit are not only healthier, but have an advantage when it comes to learning.
Do fitter children do better academically? They do according to researcher, Sudhish Srikanth, a student at the University of North Texas. Srikanth recently presented his findings to the American Psychological Association.
1,211 students were tested from five Texas middle schools. Researchers looked at each student’s academic self-concept -- how confident they were in their abilities to do well -- and took into account the student's socioeconomic status.
They knew these two factors would play a role in how well the students did, Srikanth says.
They took into account other influences such as social support, fitness and body composition. What they discovered matched what other studies have found – kids who are fit tend to do better academically than kids who are not fit.
The findings are considered preliminary since they have not undergone the “peer review” process. But other research suggests why fitness is so important, says researcher Trent Petrie, PhD, director of the Center for Sport Psychology at the University of North Texas.
"Physical fitness is associated with improvements in memory, concentration, organization, and staying on task," he says.
For one to five months before the students took standardized reading and math tests, they answered questions about usual physical activity, their view of their school ability, their self-esteem and social support.
The researchers assessed the students' fitness. They used a variety of tests that looked at muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, aerobic capacity, and body composition.
Previous studies have found a link between fitness and improved school performance, Srikanth says. However, this new study also looked at several other potential influences.
For the boys, having social support was also related to better reading scores.
For the girls, a larger body-mass index was the only factor other than fitness that predicted better reading scores. The researchers are not sure why.
For both boys and girls, fitness levels were the only factors studied (besides socioeconomic status and self-concept) related to math scores.
Srikanth found an upward trend, with more fitness linked with better scores.
The new research reiterates that of James Sallis, PhD, distinguished professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego. A long-time researcher on physical fitness, he reviewed the findings.
"The mountain of evidence just got higher that active and fit kids perform better in school," he says.
The finding that fitness was related to both reading and math scores in both girls and boys is impressive, he says. "That's strong evidence."
"I hope this study convinces both parents and school administrators to increase and improve physical education, recess, classroom activity breaks, after-school physical activity and sports, and walk-to-school programs."
For about a decade now, PE classes and recess time have been disappearing from public school programs. Budget cuts and time restraints are often the reasons sited. Testing also seems to be one of the main reasons gym classes and play time have been reduced or eliminated. Some parents and caregivers take advantage of after-school fitness programs, but that option isn’t available or affordable for everyone.
So as schools move farther away from offering physical fitness programs, parents have to become more proactive in helping their kids stay active and fit. As it turns out, a fit body is not only good for the heart, but the head as well.