Jocks can teach bookworms a lesson.
Physically fit children perform better academically than less fit children, according to a new study that may finally settle the battle between jocks and nerds.
The study also provides ammunition for those advocating increased physical education in schools.
Researchers at West Virginia University evaluated the fitness levels and standardized academic test scores of 725 Grade 5 students in Wood County, West Virginia, and re-examined the results two years later when the children were in Grade 7.
The study found that academic performance dipped when the students' fitness declined and increased when their fitness improved.
The children with the highest average standardized test scores, which included reading, math, science and social studies, were also the ones who were deemed fit at the start and end of the study.
Children who ranked second highest in academic performance were those who were not fit in Grade 5, but had become fit by Grade 7.
Those whose fitness levels slipped during the two years ranked third academically, and children with the worst academic performance were the ones who were not physically fit in either Grade, the study found.
"The take-home message from this study is that we want our kids to be fit [for]as long as possible and it will show in their academic performance," says the study's co-author, Lesley Cottrell, an associate professor of pediatrics at West Virginia University. "But if we can intervene on those children who are not necessarily fit and get them to physically-fit levels, we may also see their academic performance increase."
Dr. Cottrell, who presented the findings at the American Heart Association's 2010 Conference on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism in San Francisco yesterday, says that the study shows a greater emphasis on physical fitness in schools will produce smarter, healthier children.
As a long-time children's sports instructor in Saskatoon, Dan Kasperski says he is not surprised by the study's findings, as it's no secret that physical activity improves blood circulation to the brain.
Mr. Kasperski, who estimates that he has coached tens of thousands of children over the past 20 years, sees the link between fitness and school performance first hand.
"It seems like the kids who are interested in sports … have no problems in school," Mr. Kasperski says. "A lot of the kids who get in trouble, the ones who are struggling, it does seem [they]… are less active at times, or don't participate in anything extracurricular."
While he does not know whether the children he has coached performed better in school over time, he says, "I just know that it doesn't hurt."
Although the Canadian Paediatric Society declined to comment directly on the study, it does note in its Healthy Active Living for Children and Youth report that physical education and extracurricular sports play a significant role in improving students' attitudes and behaviour. In 2001, however, only 33 per cent of Canadian schools had formal physical education classes, while most schools offer half the recommended provincial requirement for physical education.
The Society recognized growing pressure on educators to focus on preparing students for the workforce, as some claim that cutting time spent on physical activity will increase academic achievement.
"Yet, there is no evidence that regular physical activity hinders educational performance and there is modest evidence that shows that it actually enhances academic achievement," it says.Canadian Paediatric Society suggests that children who are inactive should begin with 20 minutes of moderate physical activity and 10 minutes of vigorous physical activity a day for the first month. They should build up their total exercise time to at least 90 minutes a day.