Fitness and Academics

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Updated: October 27, 2012

The Relationship Between Physical Fitness and Academic Performance
By Toby Brooks, PhD, LAT, ATC, CSCS, YFS-3
Director of Research & Education,
International Youth Conditioning Association
Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation Sciences,
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center

In today’s tight-budget, high stakes, teach-to-the-test world of secondary education, states and districts have largely forced traditional physical education to the wayside. The reasons seem logical: the cash-strapped district can save money on PE teacher salaries and equipment while simultaneously injecting time that had been allotted to PE activities back into the teaching curriculum, subsequently saving money and improving standardized test scores in one move. However, what research has consistently and continues to show us is that it simply isn’t quite so easy.

Instead, a mounting body of evidence supporting the use of physical activity in enhancing both academic performance and behavior suggests that cutting PE is absolutely the wrong thing to do. This is because physical activity has consistently been linked with improved academic performance.(2) What is less well understood is the precise mechanisms through which this relationship exists.

One massive research effort conducted in a large school district in the Midwest over several years consistently resulted in improved performance in math and science scores in students who underwent a physical education session prior to the regular class day.(1) Termed “zero-hour” PE, the Naperville study was effective in demonstrating that the students who were more physically active, especially prior to beginning their formal academic studies for the day, were more likely to perform well on standardized tests.

When one considers the fact that a young student’s leaning centers in the brain do not exist in isolation but rather as part of a larger organism, then the link between physical fitness and improved cognition is at the very least logical. Furthermore, the fact that serial physical activity improves blood pressure, enhances cerebral blood flow, and positively impacts hormone regulation in the brain and within the body in general, this linkage becomes further refined. Consider, for example, the impact of exercise on dopamine and cortisol. Well structured and developmentally appropriate exercise sessions for children increases dopamine release and decreases cortisol production. Dopamine is mood-enhancing neurotransmitter, while cortisol is a marker of stress. Exercise can also stimulate endorphin release, stimulate growth of nerve cells in the hippocampus, and increase production of BDNF, a neurotransmitter commonly referred to as “Miracle-Gro” for the brain.

While most research has indicated a pronounced positive effect, no studies to date have demonstrated a negative impact. Timing may be critical, as well, with efforts geared toward start-of-day activity appearing to have the strongest positive effects for acute learning. However, after-school and in-school programming appears to be beneficial, as well. This has led some to promote the idea of daily or at least regular physical activity as a necessary component of the academic curriculum.

In districts where this is not possible, then athletic participation may or may not serve as an appropriate substitute. The key distinctions appear to be frequency, time, and intensity. Provided the young athlete is exercising 5-7 days per week for at least an hour per day in moderate to vigorous activity, sports participation may suffice. If not, more generalize athletic development programming, likely also more beneficial from a motor development standpoint, would be preferred.

What is clear is that the old mentality of the brain operating independently of the body is antiquated and inaccurate. A healthy body serves as a more optimal host for a healthy mind. As such, efforts to enhance physical fitness likely also “prime” the mind for learning.

1. Ratey JJ and Hagerman E. SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008.
2. Singh A, Uijtdewilligen L, Twisk J, van Mechlen W, and Chinapaw M. Physical activity and performance at school: a systematic review of the literature including a methodological quality assessment. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 166: 49-55, 2012.

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