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Fit, Healthy Children Do Better in School


What’s the secret to success in getting your kids to perform well academically?  The key might just be in motivating them to exercise regularly and get in shape.  A new study has found that the children who are fittest tend to earn higher scores on standardized testing.

The research, conducted at the University of North Texas in Denton, found that fit kids performed better on both math and reading grade-level tests.1  Working with a pool of 1,211 students who attended five different local middle schools, the scientists discovered that the level of cardiorespiratory fitness was the single biggest factor in academic success on the tests.  The researchers also assessed the students’ confidence in their intellectual abilities, socioeconomic background, social support, and body composition.

In the months before taking the reading and math tests for the study, all of the participants were surveyed about their typical activity levels, self-esteem, perception of their academic skills, and support network.  Then, the scientists performed their own appraisal of each child’s fitness, having them execute tasks to determine flexibility, muscle strength, aerobic capacity, and endurance, as well as measuring their body composition.

Out of all of the categories considered in this research that might influence school grades, the student’s level of fitness was the most accurate barometer.  The bottom line, and this might be a surprise to Bill Gates and all the other “nerds” who started the computer revolution, was that when a student was fit, he or she scored higher.  The researchers did not provide any possible reason for this result, but it certainly fits with the findings of numerous previous studies.  For instance, a 2006 study that took place at Michigan State University in East Lansing found that sixth grade students who participated in vigorous athletic endeavors outside of school — such as soccer, football, or even skateboarding — achieved grades that were approximately 10 percent higher in math, science, English, and social studies classes.2  And it makes perfect sense if you consider that those who are fit, whether adult or child, tend to have better concentration skills, memory, and focus than their peers who are not in shape.

Math, especially, was influenced by a student’s fitness, according to the present research.  For both the boys and girls involved in the study, fitness level was the only factor of everything considered that correlated to better math scores.  In fact, the greater a student’s fitness level was assessed to be, the higher their math scores were. And you always thought the captain of the football team was just a dumb jock.

Reading was influenced by fitness as well, but there were additional circumstances that seemed to affect the students as well.  Interestingly, for girls, a greater body mass index was the other factor that was linked with high scores in reading.  Although at first glance that might seem to contradict the fitness findings, BMI is far from a perfect system for assessing fitness.  In fact, it is definitely possible that those girls who performed better in reading also had a higher BMI due to substantial muscle tone from regular exercise — which would actually confirm the study’s results.  As far as the boys, the additional factor that served as a predictor for higher reading scores was social support, which perhaps just shows that at this age, boys need to know they have caring people to help them when necessary.

And while it is very important to most of us that our children perform well academically, there are also valuable health-related reasons to make sure your kids are fit.  With rising rates of childhood obesity and diseases such as diabetes among our youth,3 it is more essential than ever to get kids off the couch and away from the television or computer for at least some period of time every day.   It is definitely easier to start your kids off with good habits such as eating nutritiously and exercising regularly when they are very young, but all is not lost if your children are already older.  Bad habits are harder to break, but if the whole family makes changes together and gets involved in fitness, even middle schoolers can be persuaded to join in some healthy activities.  Give them a voice in which sports or other forms of exercise they might be interested in taking up and provide the support they need to get the ball rolling. But be careful of sports that can promote repeated head trauma. And keep in mind, smart kids have their own unique problems.


1 Doheny, Kathleen. “Fitter Kids, Better Grades?” WebMD. 3 August 2012. Accessed 5 August 2012.

2 Oswald, Tom. “Michigan State researcher finds more vigorous exercise equals better academic performance.” Michigan State University. 3 August 2006. Accessed 6 August 2012.

3 “Childhood Obesity Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 7 June 2012. Accessed 6 August 2012.

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