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Fit students more likely to achieve academic success, despite poverty status

August 17, 2020 | Erin Bluvas,

Research led by exercise science professor Russell Pate and members of his Children’s Physical Activity Research Group has found that the odds of achieving academic standards are significantly higher among elementary and middle school South Carolina students who have higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, regardless of poverty status. Pate and his team also found that cardiorespiratory fitness may partially mitigate the adverse effects of poverty on academic achievement. They published their findings in the Journal of School Health.

”The key finding of this study was that, in a large and diverse sample of elementary and middle school students, cardiorespiratory fitness was consistently and independently associated with academic achievement, even after adjusting for sex, race/ethnicity, poverty status and BMI,” Pate says. “This finding is important because poverty status has been shown consistently to exert a negative influence on academic achievement, but this study suggests that physical activity may be able to mitigate some of these effects.”

Previous research has already demonstrated that normal-weight status students were more likely to achieve academic standards. However, this relationship was weakened by the addition of demographic variables and cardiorespiratory fitness (i.e., a reflection of a person’s ability to perform whole-body physical activities such as stair climbing and brisk walking).

Health benefits of higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness have been well-documented for populations across the lifespan, with lower fitness levels among youth associated with risk factors for cardio-metabolic diseases (e.g., stroke, diabetes, cardiovascular disease) later in life. They are also associated with higher levels of body fat and poorer psychosocial health. Recent studies have shown that school-age children with higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness are more likely to have better executive function, brain structure and cognitive abilities.

Few studies have examined the associations of cardiorespiratory fitness and weight status with academic achievement when taking demographic factors such as sex, age, race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status into account. Even fewer have examined these factors as possible moderators of the relationship between cardiovascular fitness and academic achievement. This project investigated the associations among cardiorespiratory fitness, weight status and academic achievement in youth and sought to determine if these relationships are moderated by poverty status.

A joint project of UofSC, the BlueCross BlueShield Foundation of South Carolina, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, and the South Carolina Department of Education, this study included 43,838 South Carolina students in 5th and 8th grades. The researchers assessed academic achievement through state-wide, standardized tests of mathematics and English language arts. Cardiorespiratory fitness was measured and defined as Healthy Fitness Zone or Needs Improvement/Needs-Improvement-Health Risk.

The researchers’ findings suggest that levels of physical activity that produce and maintain higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness in children may positively influence their academic achievement. The authors recommend that schools adopt policies and practices that provide students with opportunities to engage in the recommended type and amount of physical activity (i.e., 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and muscle-strengthening activities at least three days per week) known to improve and maintain good levels of physical fitness in children and adolescents.

“Given the substantial amounts of time that youth spend in school, experts have recommended that, on school days, students attain at least one-half of the recommended amount of daily physical activity while at school,” Pate says, noting that most American students do not meet the current federal physical activity guidelines. “Schools that adopt policies and practices aimed at insuring that students meet these guidelines contribute importantly to the health of their students. The findings of this study suggest that such schools also increase the likelihood that students will meet important academic standards.”

*Co-authors on this study include Morgan Clennin (UofSC Ph.D. in Exercise Science Alumna, current Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Kaiser Permanente of Colorado), Emily Shull (UofSC Ph.D. in Exercise Science Candidate), Julian Reed (UofSC MPH in Exercise Science Alumnus, current Professor of Health Sciences at Furman University), and Marsha Dowda (UofSC Exercise Science Biostatistician).  

This study was supported by a grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina Foundation (grant number 2014-23) to the University of South Carolina.


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Russell Pate receives $2.3 million grant to study children’s weight status in family child care home settings

Pate appointed to 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee

Russell Pate receives 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition

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