A recent Finnish study shows that higher levels of physical activity are related to better academic achievement during the first three school years particularly in boys. The study published in PLOS ONE was conducted in collaboration with the Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children (PANIC) Study conducted at the University of Eastern Finland and the First Steps Study at the University of Jyväskylä.
The study investigated the relationships of different types of physical activity and sedentary behavior assessed in the first grade to reading and arithmetic skills in grades 1- among 186 Finnish children. Higher levels of physical activity at recess were related to better reading skills and participation in organized sports was linked to higher arithmetic test scores in grades 1. Particularly boys with higher levels of physical activity, and especially walking and bicycling to and from school, had better reading skills than less active boys. Furthermore, boys who spent more time doing activities involving reading and writing on their leisure time had better reading skills compared to boys who spent less time doing those activities. Moreover, boys with more computer and video game time achieved higher arithmetic test scores than boys with less computer and video game time.
In girls, there were only few associations of physical activity and sedentary behavior with academic achievement when various confounding factors were controlled for.
The findings of the present study highlight the potential of physical activity during recess and participation in organized sports in the improvement of academic achievement in children. Particularly boys´ school success may benefit from higher levels of physical activity and active school transportation, reading and writing as well as moderate computer and video game use.
Physical activity (PA), particularly physically active transportation, is decreasing, whereas sedentary behaviors, especially watching TV, sitting at the computer and playing video games, are increasing among children in developed countries. This trend is a major public health problem because sedentary lifestyle in childhood has been found to increase the risk of chronic diseases in adulthood.
The results of some cross-sectional studies suggest that lower levels of PA is associated with a poorer academic achievement among children. Moreover, intervention studies have provided evidence that implementing 90 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous PA per week within a school day, adding 60 minutes of physical education per day or increasing after-school PA for 40 minutes per day improves academic achievement among children. However, some intervention and cross-sectional studies have reported only a weak or non-significant relationship between PA and academic achievement in children.
One explanation for the inconsistent results of previous studies may be that various types of PA and sedentary behavior are differently related to academic achievement among children and adolescents. Some prior studies have found direct associations of physical education and extracurricular PA with academic achievement in children. The results of one study suggested that engaging in sports is more strongly associated with academic achievement than total PA in adolescents. Moreover, one 20-minute bout of moderate-intensity PA has been shown to acutely improve performance in an academic achievement test in children. However, there is limited evidence on the associations of other types of PA, such as physically active school transportation or recess PA with measures of academic achievement such as grades, standardized test scores or reading and arithmetic skills.
Several studies have shown that acute and long-term PA improves cognitive functions, such as attention, concentration and working memory, which underlie academic achievement. Kamijo and co-workers and Chaddock-Heyman and colleagues showed an improved working memory and cognitive control, respectively, after a 9-month PA intervention in 8-9-year-old children. Moreover, Davis and associates reported enhanced executive functions after a 13-week PA intervention among overweight children. There is also some evidence that PA during recess improves attention, concentration and on-task behavior in children. In another study more time spent walking or bicycling to and from school was related to better cognitive functions independent of total PA in adolescents.
Most studies on the associations of different types sedentary behavior with academic achievement have concentrated on screen-based sedentary behaviors such as watching TV and playing with the computer. Whereas one study found an inverse association between TV watching and academic achievement in children and adolescents, another study suggested that a longer time spent watching TV was related to a better academic achievement in children. Screen time was inversely related to grade-point average but total sedentary time was not associated with academic achievement in Finnish children. Having a TV set in the bedroom has also been associated with a poorer academic achievement. Access to a home computer, however, has been associated with an improved academic achievement in 8-year-old children.
Only a few cross-sectional studies have compared different types of PA and sedentary behavior in relation to measures of academic achievement such as reading and arithmetic skills among children and adolescents. Moreover, there are no follow-up studies on these topics in these age groups. We therefore investigated the associations of different types of PA and sedentary behavior in Grade 1 with reading and arithmetic skills in Grades 1-3 and the differences in academic skills in Grades 1-3 between children who were in the upper and lower halves of PA and sedentary behavior in Grade 1 among a population sample of Finnish primary school children. We also studied whether sex and parental education modified the associations of PA and sedentary behavior with academic skills.
Link to the article: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0107031
There are no prospective studies that would have compared the relationships of different types of physical activity (PA) and sedentary behavior (SB) with academic skills among children. We therefore investigated the associations of different types of PA and SB with reading and arithmetic skills in a follow-up study among children.
The participants were 186 children (107 boys, 79 girls, 6–8 yr) who were followed-up in Grades 1–3. PA and SB were assessed using a questionnaire in Grade 1. Reading fluency, reading comprehension and arithmetic skills were assessed using standardized tests at the end of Grades 1–3.
Among all children more recess PA and more time spent in SB related to academic skills were associated with a better reading fluency across Grades 1–3. In boys, higher levels of total PA, physically active school transportation and more time spent in SB related to academic skills were associated with a better reading fluency across the Grades 1–3. Among girls, higher levels of total PA were related to worse arithmetic skills across Grades 1–3. Moreover, total PA was directly associated with reading fluency and arithmetic skills in Grades 1–3 among girls whose parents had a university degree, whereas these relationships were inverse in girls of less educated parents.
Total PA, physically active school transportation and SB related to academic skills may be beneficial for the development of reading skills in boys, whereas factors that are independent of PA or SB may be more important for academic skills in girls.
For further information, please contact:
physical activity intervention
The aims of the physical activity intervention are 1) to increase total physical activity to at least two hours per day by increasing different types of physical activity, such as unstructured physical activity, organized sports in sports clubs, structured exercise in exercise clubs, commuting to and from school and physical activity during recess , 2) to increase the versatility of physical activity to develop physical, psychic, emotional, cognitive and social skills and functions, 3) to provide a variety of positive physical activity experiences to help each child find a suitable type of physical activity and to be able to enjoy exercise on the long-term, 4) to decrease sedentary behaviors, such as watching television and playing on computer, to a maximum of two hours per day and 5) to increase energy consumption to maintain energy balance and to prevent overweight. The children and their parents in the intervention group met our physical activity specialist seven times during the two-year intensive intervention period. The physical activity counseling visits occurred at baseline and 1.5, 3, 6, 12, 18 and 24 months after the baseline visit. Our physical activity specialist gave the children and their parents detailed and individualized instructions on physical activity and sedentary behavior to promote health and wellbeing. The children were offered a possibility to participate in exercise clubs, supervised by our trained exercise instructors, in the afternoons after school once a week. We will continue a less intensive physical activity intervention until adulthood. The physical activity intervention has been planned to comply with the Finnish physical activity recommendations for children.
The aims of the diet intervention are 1) to decrease the intake of saturated fat and to increase the intake of unsaturated fat, 2) to increase the consumption of vegetables, fruit and berries, 3) to increase the consumption of foods containing lots of fibre, such as whole-grain products, 4) to decrease the intake of sugar and salt and 5) to avoid excess energy intake to prevent overweight among children and their parents. The children and their parents in the intervention group met our authorized nutritionist seven times during the two-year intensive intervention period. The diet counseling visits occurred at baseline and 1.5, 3, 6, 12, 18 and 24 months after the baseline visit. The nutritionist gave the children and their parents detailed and individualized instructions on diet to promote health and wellbeing. The children and their parents were also encouraged to participate in cooking clubs, supervised by nutritionists, where they were instructed to cook healthy meals and snacks. We will continue a less intensive diet intervention until adulthood. The diet intervention has been planned to comply with the Finnish nutrition recommendations.
Timo A. Lakka, Professor of Medical Physiology, Specialist in Internal Medicine, MD, PhD, Institute of Biomedicine, University of Eastern Finland, tel. +35840 770 7329
Eero A. Haapala
University of Eastern Finland