Many school districts around the country have coped with reduced budgets and increased state testing by cutting elective courses, including physical education. But two new studies indicate this approach is misguided. Aerobically fit students in Nebraska and Illinois were more than twice as likely to pass math and reading tests as students who were not aerobically fit.
For a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers Robert R. Rauner, Ryan W. Walters, Marybell Avery and Teresa J. Wanser used fitness test results and the Nebraska standardized test scores for 11,000 4th- through 8th-grade students in 47 public schools to determine whether aerobic fitness or weight was more important in predicting student achievement.
They found that aerobically fit students had 2.41 and 2.23 times greater odds of passing the state’s math and reading tests than aerobically unfit students. This held true for low-income students at lower odds of 1.56 for math and 1.68 for reading. The child’s weight was not a significant predictor of test scores for either poor or non-poor students.
The researchers recommended that schools focus on helping students improve their aerobic fitness rather than on reducing obesity. Better aerobic fitness benefits all students and also helps obese children to lose weight, they noted.
The other study, published in Acta Paediatrica, focused on middle school students in Illinois. Researchers Ronald W. Bass, Dale D. Brown, Kelly R. Laurson and Margaret M. Coleman of the Illinois State University School of Kinesiology and Recreation found that aerobically fit boys were two-and-a-half to three times more likely to pass state tests in math or reading than aerobically unfit boys. Aerobically fit girls were two to four times more likely to pass these tests than unfit girls. These odds held up for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Aerobic exercise seems to activate neurocognitive mechanisms, producing a calming effect that enhances the ability to focus on academics, the researchers said. Fitness is positively associated with attention, working memory, response speed and cognitive-processing speed.
The Illinois researchers suggest that in an era of tight budgets, maintaining funding for physical education helps students achieve both academic and health goals.