This has been a debate for quite a while as most research has shown a positive link between physical activity and learning, although a recent Dutch study showed some interesting nuance as not every pupil seemed to benefit.
This new, correlational study adds extra information again in favor of physical activity but… also again with more nuances added to the equation as increasing physical activity over a period of two academic years did not necessarily improve academic performance.
Or in short:
- Boys with higher levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity had better academic achievement than those with lower levels of physical activity at baseline.
- Physical activity was not associated with academic achievement at follow-up in boys or girls.
- Continuously inactive adolescents had poorer academic achievement over the follow-up period than their more active peers.
- Girls with more advanced pubertal status had better academic achievement than other girls
From the press release:
Adolescents with higher levels of physical activity performed better in school during transition from primary school to lower secondary school than their physically inactive peers, a new study from Finland shows. However, the researchers, from the University of Jyväskylä, found that increased physical activity did not necessarily result in improved academic performance.
Previous cross-sectional studies have reported that physically more active children and adolescents achieve better school grades than their less active peers do, but there are few longitudinal studies on the topic. A newly published study showed that adolescents with higher levels of physical activity over a follow-up period of two academic years had higher academic performance than did those who were continuously inactive. Furthermore, the study showed that increased levels of physical activity do not automatically result in improved academic performance. Instead, the results suggest that those adolescents who increased their physical activity had lower academic performance during the follow-up compared to their more active peers.
What the results mean
Highly active adolescents performed better in school compared to their less active peers. However, our results showed that increasing physical activity over a period of two academic years did not necessarily improve academic performance.
What the results do not mean
Based on our results, it is not possible to say whether physical activity improves academic performance or if adolescents with higher academic performance choose a physically active lifestyle. Therefore, no causal interpretations can be made. However, the results of the present study do not refute the findings of previous studies showing small but positive effects of physical activity on learning and its neural underpinnings.
‘The link between physical activity and academic performance do not always reflect a causal relationship. It is possible that high levels of physical activity and good academic performance share the same attributes, such as high motivation towards the task at hand,’ says Eero Haapala, postdoctoral researcher from the University of Jyväskylä.
The study investigated the longitudinal associations of physical activity with academic performance in 635 adolescents who were between 11 and 13 years old at baseline. Physical activity was assessed using a questionnaire and school grades were acquired from the school registers. Several confounding factors such as parental education and pubertal status were controlled for in the analyses.
Abstract of the study:
We sought to investigate the longitudinal associations of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and pubertal development with academic achievement in adolescents.
A total of 635 adolescents (283 boys, 352 girls) aged 11–13 years participated in the study. MVPA was assessed by the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study questionnaire, and pubertal development was assessed by the Pubertal Development Scale at beginning of the sixth grade (baseline) and end of the seventh grade (follow-up). Grade point average (GPA) at the end of grades 5 and 7 was computed from data acquired from the school registers. The data were analyzed using linear regression and analyses of covariance.
In boys, MVPA was positively associated with GPA at baseline after adjustment for age (β = 0.144, 95%CI: 0.028−0.260, p = 0.028). In girls, the Pubertal Development Scale was positively associated with GPA at baseline (β = 0.104, 95%CI: -0.004−0.211, p = 0.058) and follow-up (β = 0.104, 95%CI: -0.002−0.211, p = 0.055) after adjustment for age, and these associations strengthened after further adjustment for MVPA (p < 0.05). Adolescents who were inactive at baseline or at baseline and follow-up had lower GPA during follow-up than their continuously highly active peers (mean difference = -0.301, 95%CI: -0.543 to -0.058, p = 0.009) and all other adolescents (mean difference = -0.247, 95%CI: -0.475 to -0.019, p = 0.029). These differences were greater in girls than in boys.
Lower levels of MVPA were associated with lower GPA in boys at baseline. Girls who were continuously inactive had lower GPA over the follow-up period than those who were continuously active. Finally, earlier pubertal development was associated with better academic achievement in girls.