Whence a healthy mind: Correlation of physical fitness and academic performance among schoolchildren

Duncan Pepper Van Dusen, The University of Texas School of Public Health


Background. Public schools are a key forum in the fight for child health because of the opportunities they present for physical activity and fitness surveillance. However, because schools are evaluated and funded on the basis of standardized academic performance rather than physical activity, empirical research evaluating the connections between fitness and academic performance is needed to justify curriculum allocations to physical activity. Methods. Analyses were based on a convenience sample of 315,092 individually-matched standardized academic (TAKS™) and fitness (FITNESSGRAM®) test records collected by 13 Texas school districts under state mandates. We categorized each fitness result in quintiles by age and gender and used a mixed effects regression model to compare the academic performance of the top and bottom fitness groups for each fitness test and grade level combination. Results. All fitness variables except BMI showed significant, positive associations with academic performance after sociodemographic covariate adjustments, with effect sizes ranging from 0.07 (95% CI: 0.05,0.08) in girls trunklift-TAKS reading to 0.34 (0.32,0.35) in boys cardiovascular-TAKS math. Cardiovascular fitness showed the largest inter-quintile difference in TAKS score (32-75 points), followed by curl-ups. After an additional adjustment for BMI and curl-ups, cardiovascular associations peaked in 8th-9 th grades (maximum inter-quintile difference 142 TAKS points; effect size 0.75 (0.69,0.82) for 8th grade girls math) and showed dose-response characteristics across quintiles (p<0.001 for both genders and outcomes). BMI analysis demonstrated limited, non-linear association with academic performance after adjustment for sociodemographic, cardiovascular fitness and curl-up variables. Low-BMI Hispanic high school boys showed significantly lower TAKS scores than the moderate (but not high) BMI group. High-BMI non-Hispanic white high school girls showed significantly lower scores than the moderate (but not low) BMI group. Conclusions. In this study, fitness was strongly and significantly related to academic performance. Cardiovascular fitness showed a distinct dose-response association with academic performance independent of other sociodemographic and fitness variables. The association peaked in late middle to early high school. The independent association of BMI to academic performance was only found in two sub-groups and was non-linear, with both low and high BMI posing risk relative to moderate BMI but not to each other. In light of our findings, we recommend that policymakers consider PE mandates in middle-high school and require linkage of academic and fitness records to facilitate longitudinal surveillance. School administrators should consider increasing PE time in pursuit of higher academic test scores, and PE practitioners should emphasize cardiovascular fitness over BMI reduction.

Subject Area

Educational tests & measurements|Physical education|Public health

Recommended Citation

Van Dusen, Duncan Pepper, "Whence a healthy mind: Correlation of physical fitness and academic performance among schoolchildren" (2009). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI1470215.