Fit Kids Get Higher Math and Reading Scores

It turns out that a healthy heart, strong lungs and good relationships are leading factors determining whether middle schoolers get good grades in core subjects. (AP Photo)

Could an hour on the playground, a bike ride or a walk in the park do more for your child’s math and reading scores than more studying? How about good relationships with you and with their friends? Could be.

It turns out that a healthy heart, strong lungs and good relationships are leading factors determining whether middle schoolers get good grades in these core subjects. Or at least, so says a new University of North Texas study, presented at the  American Psychological Association's 120th Annual Convention earlier this summer.

According to lead researcher Trent A. Petrie, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the university’s Center for Sport Psychology , “cardiorespiratory fitness was the only factor that we consistently found to have an impact on both boys' and girls' grades on reading and math tests. This provides more evidence that schools need to re-examine any policies that have limited students' involvement in physical education classes."

Social support from friends and family that helped preteens and young teens solve problems and deal with emotions also helped boys get better reading scores. And paradoxically, have a higher body mass index (a measure that compares height to weight) was a factor for girls who got better reading scores.

But rather than encouraging overeating and sitting around, focus on the fitness factor. The researchers did.  A few months before 1,211 Texas middle schoolers were scheduled to take their annual standardized reading and math tests, they answered questions about their level of physical activity, and how they viewed their academic ability, self-esteem and social support. The school district provided information on the students' reading and math scores at the end of the year.

It’s not the first to link physical activity and better learning -- something that’s worrying many experts now that fewer and fewer schools offer daily phys ed or even recess. (In one recent year, just 3.8% of elementary schools, 7.9%of middle schools, and 2.1% of high schools provided daily physical education all year for all students.  Even when physical activity takes time away from the classroom, it raises grades, many studies show:

Academic performance went up 15.5% for kids in grades 2 to 6 in one 1997 study when they got an extra hour of phys ed, compared to kids stuck in class for that time.  In another, Massachusetts fourth-graders who got more phys ed throughout the school year did better on language-arts tests than kids who got half as much phys ed; the students did equally well in math. In another, girls in kindergarten and grades 1 and 5 who got 70 minutes of phys ed a week did significantly better in math and reading than girls who got just 35 minutes; for boys, scores were similar.

What’s the link? Could be that kids just need a mental break, that activity boosts blood flow to the brain and relieves stress, or that exercise -- already known to increase levels of a brain cell-fertilizing chemical called BDNF -- intrinsically makes kids smarter.

How much phys ed does your child get in a day or a week? Do you think it affects his or her grades? How?