What could make children and teens do better in school? Recent research suggests that moderate to vigorous physical activity is linked to academic performance. The researchers used data from a large, longitudinal study to analyze the relationship between physical activity in pre-teens and test scores. They found that increased physical activity was connected to better academic performance, especially for girls’ science scores.

The researchers culled data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), sometimes referred to as the Children of the 90s study. The study followed around 14,000 children born in the South West of England between 1991 and 1992. At age 11, the children wore an accelerometer on an elasticated belt for a period of between three and seven days. This measured their physical activity. The boys engaged in an average of 29 minutes of physical activity per day and the girls for an average of 18 minutes. Both genders exercised for less than the recommended 60 minutes.

At ages 11, 13, and 15/16, the children were formally assessed in English, math, and science. The researchers correlated their test scores with their average physical activity duration at age 11, controlling for factors like socioeconomic status and whether the children begun puberty.

The results demonstrated that at age 11, physical activity was linked to better academic performance in all subjects; physical activity especially boosted girls’ science scores. The same trends manifested at age 13. By age 15/16, there was a similar link with the corollary that every 17 additional minutes per day for boys and 12 additional minutes per day for girls increased academic performance even more. Once again, the girls’ science scores saw the most benefit from physical activity.

The researchers conclude “If moderate to vigorous physical activity does influence academic attainment this has implications for public health and education policy by providing schools and parents with a potentially important stake in meaningful and sustained increases in physical activity.”

This research is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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