Forget the old high school clichés about athletes not doing as well academically as less sporty kids -- a new study shows that children who exercise more do better on mathematics and reading tests.
“There is some truth that athletes may be the brightest,” said Dr. Bob Rauner, author of the survey that compared standardized test scores of fourth- to eighth-grade children in public schools in Lincoln, Neb.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about dumb jocks and out-of-shape nerds,” Rauner said.
His study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics on Thursday, showed that children who are more physically fit tended to do better in the math and reading tests than children who were less active and heavier.
The Journal of Pediatrics portrayed the study partly as a result of U.S. schools dropping gym classes and physical education, ironically to focus more on academics.
“Although the long-term consequences of childhood obesity are well documented, some school districts have reduced physical education classes to devote more time to the three Rs in education — reading, writing, and arithmetic,” the study said. “However, there is new evidence that leaving out an important fourth R -- aerobics -- could actually be counterproductive for increasing test scores.”
Rauner, a family physician for 15 years, who now runs Healthy Lincoln, a non-profit that advocates for childhood health, said his study was prompted by seeing a lot of obese kids. “We found that some of the most obese were in schools which did not even have recess.”
He and colleagues from Lincoln Public Schools and Creighton University in Nebraska analyzed standardized tests for math and reading in 2010-2011, and compared them to students’ aerobic fitness and body mass index (BMI).
The study found that physically fit children had a 2.4 times greater chance of passing math tests and a 2.2 times greater chance of passing reading tests compared with aerobically unfit children.
Among poorer children who received free school lunches – and who tended to be more overweight for socio-economic reasons -- the odds of passing the tests were still greater than those of students who were aerobically-unfit.
The study also found that BMI, although an important indicator for overall general health, did not have a significant effect on academic success.
“Although obesity is a concern for children, this study shows that aerobic fitness can have a greater effect on academic performance than weight,” the Journal said.
It noted that both aerobic fitness and socio-economic status have a similar impact on academic performance, but because aerobic fitness can be easier to improve, it is easy to implement in a school setting.
“Schools should think twice before taking minutes from physical education classes and recess,” it warned.
"Schools sacrificing physical education and physical activity time in search of more seat time for math and reading instruction could potentially be pursuing a counterproductive approach," said Rauner.
He said the study data was passed on to the Lincoln schools superintendent and he said one principal he knows has already re-introduced recess time to allow children to run around.
He said physical education has been treated as optional for U.S. schools in the past few decades, “but I am hopeful we have passed that low point…and can reverse things.”
Other studies, he said, show children are becoming healthier in general and he pointed to physical exercise as significant in the treatment of other conditions, such as older Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
“It’s clear that if you work out this morning and then take the math test, you will do better,” said Rauner.
Rebecca Hashim, a clinical psychologist at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, N.Y., who was not involved in the study, said the results were promising. “There is well-established research showing that physical and mental well-being are connected."
Some programs to treat depression use physical exercise, she said, and studies with children show that exercise can raise self-esteem, “and if they feel better about themselves, perhaps they will do better academically.”
“There is some emerging research that regular physical activity can improve cognition,” Hashim said, noting that the study did not find that weight, or BMI, had any significant effect on test results.
“It makes sense," she said. "There is no known negative effect of exercise, so if it could improve well-being, why not put resources behind it?”
Hashim, who works with obese children in the Bronx, said she encouraged them to move their bodies more. “It’s hard if they are overweight as they avoid it.” She said the findings were positive, but would like to see further studies in different or more racially diverse populations than Lincoln, Nebraska.
Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas, pediatrician and author of books on child development and behavior, agreed that the study needed to be extended to other regions. “But, if additional research confirms these findings, hopefully there will be more value placed on physical activity for kids."
“It would also be interesting to know why this is the case ... is the brain needing that ‘work out’ to function better (as is the theory with Alzheimer's)? Or maybe kids are more focused and attentive and spend more quality time learning when their time is broken up by having time to exercise,” she said.