Recent research appears to demonstrate an association between a child’s physical fitness and academic achievement. At a time when many young people’s physical activity is made up of texting messages and scanning websites, it's a particularly timely study.

The study was presented in March at the American Heart Association’s Conference on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism. The researchers paid attention to students’ fitness, rather than their weight. 725 fifth-grade students participated in the study, with researchers checking their:

  • physical fitness
  • body mass index
  • standardized scores on academic tests
“Children who had the best average scores on standardized tests in reading, math, science and social studies were fit at the start and end of the study, researchers found. The next best group, academically, in all four subjects, was made up of children who were not fit in fifth grade but had become fit by seventh grade. The children who had lost their fitness levels between fifth and seventh grades were third in academic performance. Children who were not physically fit in either the fifth or seventh grades had the lowest academic performance," the report stated.

Results of another research study, published in the February 2005 issue of Journal of Exercise Physiology also suggested a correlation between “overall fitness and academic achievement.”

It’s not news that fitness is important. Medical research—and common sense—tells us that with high rates of obesity and problems with cholesterol, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, Americans have to take initiative on improving their health. What is most interesting is that the above studies demonstrate a relationship between an aspect of one’s overall health, and the ability to better perform academic tasks.

These studies—and future ones—could be integral to the decisions made by school districts regarding programs and classes. Unfortunately, physical education classes, where curriculum often includes both physical fitness and health education, are often the first programs to be downsized or done away with as districts struggle financially

This spring, a school district in Florida proposed reducing physical education classes in their elementary schools. Just a few days ago, an Oregon school district decided against replacing a P.E. teacher in at least one school, and possibly cutting P.E. classes in another.

Last year, research involving thousands of elementary school students, and published in the February 2009 issue of Pediatrics, demonstrated an association between daily recess and better classroom behavior as reported by teachers. Since good behavior in schools generally translates to more time teaching and more time on task, cutting or reducing recess time could affect everything from test performance, to grades, to academic progress.

If additional research is able to confirm a causal relationship between fitness and school performance, it may drive school board members to rethink their decisions. If what the educational system is striving for is achievement, doing away with programs that teach and promote physical activity may have the opposite effect.