Physical Fitness Linked to Student Performance, Study Finds

Physical fitness isn’t just a plus for one’s overall health and wellbeing. According to new research from Michigan State University, middle-schoolers who were in good physical shape also performed better on standardized tests and received higher grades.

This is the first comprehensive study that looked at the relationship between childhood fitness level and academic outcomes. Published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, the study also concludes that many aspects of fitness – flexibility, strength, and endurance among them – might have an impact on the educational attainment of middle-schoolers.

Lead researcher Dawn Coe states, “We looked at the full range of what’s called health-related fitness,” said Coe, who conducted the research as a doctoral student in MSU’s kinesiology department and is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Kids aren’t really fit if they’re doing well in just one of those categories.”

The researchers followed 312 kids in grades 6 through 8 who attended a middle school in West Michigan. Kids were given several fitness tests, including pushups and sprints, to determine their overall level of fitness. With the results in hand, the researchers compared the kids’ grades on including their report cards and including standardized test results. For both genders, students who were found to be in good physical health consistently outperformed their less-fit peers.

The findings could add a new dimension to recent controversy over schools doing away with physical fitness classes and open recess in order to preserve more time for academics. According to report co-author James Pivarnik, those changes could actually be counterproductive in the long term.

“Look, your fitter kids are the ones who will do better on tests, so that would argue against cutting physical activity from the school day,” said Pivarnik, an MSU professor of kinesiology. “That’s the exciting thing, is if we can get people to listen and have some impact on public policy.”

Coe, the lead researcher, said that what surprised her more was that the correlation between grades and fitness was only visible if the kids hit several markers for fitness rather than just a single marker.

Being in good shape brings more benefits than just good report cards. According to Pivarnik, children who are fit also grow up to be fit adults whose ambition is less likely to be stymied and hobbled by ill health.

Making fitness a bigger part of children’s lives also sets them up for future success, Pivarnik added.

“Fit kids are more likely to be fit adults,” he said. “And now we see that fitness is tied to academic achievement. So hopefully the fitness and the success will both continue together.”