Could targeting children’s fitness boost academic performance?

The benefits of a physically active lifestyle and of a high cardiorespiratory fitness level on mental health and cognition in adults have been known for several years. Even in children, high fitness levels have been linked with better cognitive control, memory, and academic performance. However, most studies conducted on this topic are small and cross-sectional, which means that these associations could be due to the fact that students who perform better in school are actually those who engage more in sports or physical activities or vice-versa. No studies have shown that improving cardiorespiratory fitness levels will be associated with better academic performance over time.

A team of researchers from Portugal, Norway, and the United Kingdom have designed a 3-year prospective study that sought to determine: 1) whether students who are fitter will have better grades in the future compared to unfit students; and 2) whether students who are unfit, but who do become fit will have better grades in the future compared to students who remain unfit. For that purpose, they recruited 1286 grade five, six or seven students aged 11 to 14 years from 14 public schools in the Oeiras Municipality (west of Lisbon) in Portugal. Each participant underwent a progressive aerobic cardiovascular endurance run (shuttle test) to evaluate his or her cardiorespiratory fitness at baseline and after the follow-up. Academic achievements (i.e. their grades in Portuguese (mother tongue), mathematics, foreign language (English) and sciences) were also evaluated at baseline and at the end of the study. Results of the study, which were recently published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, indicate that students who were considered as fit at follow-up had better grades in all four categories compared to students who were unfit at follow-up. These associations appeared to be greater for Portuguese and foreign language. Interestingly, the authors also found that children and adolescents who went from being unfit to being fit during the 3-year follow-up also improved their grades in Portuguese and foreign language.

It should be noted that these findings were derived from an observational study and that some underlying risk factors (measured or not) such as physical activity levels, parents’ education, or socioeconomic status, whether students spent a lot of time studying or not, etc., could explain part of these associations. Whether interventions targeting physical activity or fitness levels will improve students’ academic performance will eventually have to be determined. However, beyond improving the academic performance, the health benefits of physical activity and exercise are substantial and there are no reasons why children should not get their recommended hour of daily physical activity. Unfortunately, conservative estimates suggest that less than one of four children in Western societies do. Hopefully, the results of this study will reach school administrators and convince them that investing in children’s cardiorespiratory fitness may be part of a broader plan to improve both their health AND their academic performances.