The role of physical fitness in school readiness and academic achievement
The transition from kindergarten to school is a big step in a young child’s life, and not all children manage this challenge equally well. Researchers are working to identify the characteristics children exhibit in kindergarten that predict later academic achievement – typically referred to as “school readiness factors.”
In the past, interest has focused primarily on school- or domain-specific factors, such as precursors of mathematics, reading or writing skills. More recently, however, scholars in the field of school readiness have focused increasing attention on more general characteristics of children. Numerous studies have found that self-regulatory abilities, or executive functions, are linked to academic achievement. Another potential factor in school readiness that has received far less attention is physical fitness.
Physical fitness, a multidimensional construct that encompasses such components as strength, endurance and agility, has recently been identified as a factor in school readiness. The various aspects of physical fitness have been found by numerous studies to be related to academic achievement.
But how is physical fitness linked to academic achievement? One explanation is the cardiovascular fitness hypothesis, which argues that physical activity produces structural and functional changes in the brain that have a positive effect on learning and attention, and subsequently on academic achievement.
Another is the cognitive stimulation hypothesis, which is based on the idea that complex physical activity that requires a high level of coordination has a positive impact not only on physical fitness, but also on cognitive control processes such as executive functions. In other words, engaging in physical activity and learning new motor skills is cognitively demanding and provides an opportunity to improve executive functioning.
Since executive functions have been shown to be associated with academic achievement, it seems plausible that physical fitness, in turn, may have an indirect effect on school success. This is precisely what we set out to test in a recent study conducted by members of the Department of Developmental Psychology at the University of Bern.
Indirect links to academic achievement
Confirming the results of a cross-sectional study in the Netherlands and a short-term longitudinal study in Switzerland, we found that physical fitness does indeed affect academic achievement via executive functions. Our longitudinal study supports the theory that executive functions play a mediational role in the relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement. Well-designed programs of physical activity have a favorable influence not only on health, but also on executive functions. Physical fitness, in turn, appears to promote development in a variety of domains, including academic achievement.
Best, J. R. (2010). Effects of physical activity on children’s executive function: Contributions of experimental research on aerobic exercise.Developmental Review, 30(4), 331-351.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2010.08.001
Blair, C., & Raver, C. C. (2015). School readiness and self-regulation: A developmental psychobiological approach.Annual Review of Psychology, 66, 711-731.https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010814-015221
Bös, K. (1987) Handbuch sportmotorischer Tests.Göttingen: Hogrefe.
Castelli, D. M., Hillman, C. H., Buck, S. M., & Erwin, H. E. (2007). Physical fitness and academic achievement in third-and fifth-grade students. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology,29(2), 239-252. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsep.29.2.239
Eveland-Sayers, B. M., Farley, R. S., Fuller, D. K., Morgan, D. W., & Caputo, J. L. (2009). Physical fitness and academic achievement in elementary school children.Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 6(1), 99-104. https://doi.org/10.1123/jpah.6.1.99
Fedewa, A. L., & Ahn, S. (2011). The effects of physical activity and physical fitness on children’s achievement and cognitive outcomes: a meta-analysis. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 82(3), 521-535. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2011.10599785
Hillman, C. H., Kamijo, K., & Scudder, M. (2011). A review of chronic and acute physical activity participation on neuroelectric measures of brain health and cognition during childhood. Preventive Medicine,52, S21-S28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2011.01.024
Khan, N. A., & Hillman, C. H. (2014). The relation of childhood physical activity and aerobic fitness to brain function and cognition: a review. Pediatric Exercise Science, 26(2), 138-146. https://doi.org/10.1123/pes.2013-0125
Kurdek, L. A., & Sinclair, R. J. (2001). Predicting reading and mathematics achievement in fourth-grade children from kindergarten readiness scores. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(3), 451-455. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0622.214.171.1241
Lopes, L., Santos, R., Pereira, B., & Lopes, V. P. (2013). Associations between gross motor coordination and academic achievement in elementary school children. Human Movement Science, 32(1), 9-20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.humov.2012.05.005
Moreau, D., & Conway, A. R. (2013). Cognitive enhancement: a comparative review of computerized and athletic training programs. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6(1), 155-183. https://doi.org/10.1080/1750984X.2012.758763
Moreau, D., Morrison, A. B., & Conway, A. R. (2015). An ecological approach to cognitive enhancement: Complex motor training. Acta Psychologica, 157, 44-55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2015.02.007
North, T. C., McCullagh, P., & Tran, Z. V. (1990). Effect of exercise on depression. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 18(1), 379-415.
Oberer, N., Gashaj, V., & Roebers, C. M. (2017). Motor skills in kindergarten: Internal structure, cognitive correlates and relationships to background variables. Human Movement Science, 52, 170-180. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.humov.2017.02.002
Ortega, F. B., Ruiz, J. R., Castillo, M. J., & Sjöström, M. (2008). Physical fitness in childhood and adolescence: a powerful marker of health.International Journal of Obesity, 32(1), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0803774
Pianta, R. C., Cox, M. J., & Snow, K. L. (2007).School readiness and the transition to kindergarten in the era of accountability. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2397.2007.00539.x
Sardinha, L. B., Marques, A., Minderico, C., Palmeira, A., Martins, S., Santos, D. A., & Ekelund, U. (2016). Longitudinal relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and academic achievement. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 48(5), 839-844. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000000830
Schmidt, M., Jäger, K., Egger, F., Roebers, C. M., & Conzelmann, A. (2015). Cognitively engaging chronic physical activity, but not aerobic exercise, affects executive functions in primary school children: a group-randomized controlled trial. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 37(6), 575-591. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsep.2015-0069
Schmidt, M., Egger, F., Benzing, V., Jäger, K., Conzelmann, A., Roebers, C. M., & Pesce, C. (2017). Disentangling the relationship between children’s motor ability, executive function and academic achievement. PLoS one, 12(8), e0182845. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0182845
Tomporowski, P. D., Davis, C. L., Miller, P. H., & Naglieri, J. A. (2008). Exercise and children’s intelligence, cognition, and academic achievement. Educational Psychology Review, 20(2), 111-131. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-007-9057-0
Tomporowski, P. D., McCullick, B., Pendleton, D. M., & Pesce, C. (2015). Exercise and children’s cognition: the role of exercise characteristics and a place for metacognition. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 4(1), 47-55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2014.09.003
van der Niet, A. G., Hartman, E., Smith, J., & Visscher, C. (2014). Modeling relationships between physical fitness, executive functioning, and academic achievement in primary school children. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15(4), 319-325. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2014.02.010