Fitness and Academic Performance are Linked

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Researchers from two state agencies say fitness and academic performance are linked, however  they cannot prove definitively that exercise and physical fitness make kids smarter.

The study, unveiled Thursday during a gym class at Seaman Middle School in Topeka, was based on the Kansas Fitness Information Tracking program, or K-FIT, a joint project by the state Department of Education and Department of Health and Environment, with funding from the private, nonprofit Kansas Health Foundation.

“The study is going to say it’s a relationship, which talks about it being a correlation,” said Mark Thompson, project director for the Kansas State Department of Education’s Healthy Kansas Schools project, who helped lead the research. “But at some point we can start looking at the research behind why it might happen and start talking about it being a potential causal relationship.”

Students at Seaman Middle School in Topeka work out during gym class as part of a regimen that tracks both physical fitness and academic performance. A new study from the Kansas State Department of Education and Kansas Department of Health and Environment shows a strong correlation between healthy fitness and improved academic performance.

The study tracked more than 13,000 students in grades 4-9 during the 2011-2012 school year, measuring their physical fitness with five tests using a tool called a FitnessGram. The tests measure aerobic capacity, muscular strength, endurance and flexibility to determine whether students are in a “healthy fitness zone” for their age and gender.

The tests include running 20-meter laps; curl-ups, a modified version of sit-ups; trunk lifts; 90-degree push-ups; and a sit-and-stretch exercise.

Fitness and Academic Performance are Linked

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The results showed that the greater the number of fitness tests the student passed by scoring in the fitness zone, the greater their likelihood was to score proficient or better on state reading and math assessments.

Among kids who met none of the fitness standards, only about half met state standards in reading, and fewer than half — 41.8 percent — met the standards in math.

But for students who met all five of the fitness tests, 73.5 percent scored above the standard in reading, and 70.3 percent did so in math.

The study involved students from 152 schools in 40 districts. They included all of the elementary, middle and high schools in the Lawrence school district.

By themselves, Thompson said, the results don’t answer the question of whether exercise and fitness actually make kids smarter, or whether kids who are already smart also tend to be physically active.

But he said there are several theories about why there may be a causal relationship. Some suggest a physiological connection because exercise stimulates blood flow to the brain. Others suggest a behavioral connection — that learning how to exercise and stay fit develops discipline and concentration, which then spills over into academic success.

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