ATLANTA — As the national discussion over how to improve public education continues, one area that some researchers feel has gotten short shrift is that of physical fitness and physical education. New research, presented Wednesday at the Obesity Week conference here, shows that ignoring that area in favor of adding more time in class may be self-defeating, as improved fitness and improved test scores seem to go hand in hand for students who are most in need of a boost.
To conduct their analysis, researchers from the New York City Department of Health used data from 87,000 public school students in the district who passed from grades 6 to 8 between 2006 and 2010. In looking at fitness test scores and classroom test scores, they found that boys and girls from high-poverty homes who improved their fitness scores relative to their classmates also had a corresponding increase in test scores, and those who had a decrease in fitness saw test scores drop.
While the researchers only showed an association between physical fitness and classroom performance, they hope to continue their research to better explain if and why improved fitness is key to better-prepared students.
“I definitely think in the last 10 years, where there’s been a tremendous emphasis on grades and testing, you have seen a reduction in things like physical activity,” said Cathy Nonas, a senior adviser at the New York health department. “We’re hoping this will send a message about the importance of physical activity and physical fitness.”
While the study results were presented to peers at the meeting, they have yet to undergo a full peer review, but researchers who had seen some of the preliminary data had a similar take on the meaning of the ongoing research in New York City.
“It has clear policy implications, in that the last thing we should be doing, particularly if we want to decrease the gap between poor and not-poor kids, is to take away gym when there are budget cuts,” said Dr. Antonio Convit of the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, who has researched the connection between fitness and cognitive abilities in children but was not involved in the current study.
While researchers looked at a cross-section of New York City public school students, it was only among high-poverty children that improved fitness seemed to make a significant difference. Researchers are unsure why that is the case, but they have several possible explanations.
Tiffany Harris, assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Epidemiology Services at the department, another of the study’s authors, said children from high-poverty households have many stressors at home that children from better-off homes do not have to deal with, and better fitness may help them to better cope. It may also be that the concentration required to increase their fitness levels helps them concentrate on schoolwork and in the classroom.
While obesity is often discussed as a marker for lack of fitness, researchers noted that effort and exercise seem to give the best indications for fitness, not body weight.
There were some limits to the study, however. Carla Bezold, now a doctoral candidate at the Harvard School of Public Health, who presented the findings at this week’s conference, said there may be other factors at work that the researchers could not account for, and that the fitness levels used were relative to classmates, so it could not be determined how much of an increase in fitness an individual student had.
Harris and Nonas said their study benefited from the fact that their work is a collaboration between New York City’s departments of health and education, which allows for more fitness initiatives to be brought into the schools. Others hope ongoing work in the area will bring similar beneficial collaborations.
“It’s become more and more clear that the benefits of physical activity extend beyond just physical health,” said Dr. Scott Kahan of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, who attended the presentation of the data.
A benefit of this finding, he said, is that policy leaders from different areas, such as chronic disease prevention and education, should be more eager to work with public health department members “with a common goal of, in part, increasing kids’ activity levels and physical fitness for a number of different ends. That’s exciting to think about these options and work on those for the next few years.”