Schools with fitter children achieve better literacy and numeracy results, according to Australian research.
The study by physiologist Prof. Dick Telford, of the Australian National University, and colleagues, was published in a recent issue of the journal Pediatric Exercise Science.
"A school that has, on average, high fitness levels will have, on average, higher literacy and numeracy levels," Telford told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Previous research in animals and humans has suggested greater fitness and physical activity leads to changes in the brain activity and better performance in cognitive tests and concentration.
"It took scientists by surprise to a certain degree that there was a consistent relationship," Telford said.
Telford and colleagues followed 800 children from age 8 to age 12 in 29 schools to see if physical fitness and activity affected academic performance. The randomized cluster study measured physical activity (using pedometers), physical fitness (using a multistage running test), and body fat percentage of each child.
This was then compared to the childrens' academic performance in the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) test.
'The best teachers of literacy and numeracy happen to be the very same teachers that understand how important it is for a kid to be physically active for their health.' — Dick Telford
The study found a relationship between academic performance and the fitness of the child, confirming findings from other studies. But, uniquely, this study found that the relationship between fitness and academic performance was particularly strong at the school level.
Telford says while fitness may affect performance through physiological changes, the findings show there is also a parallel effect of school culture on academic performance.
"Our results certainly show there's a relationship between physical activity and fitness and the academic performance," said Telford.
"But because it's stronger at the school level, I'm saying a major reason for this is a cultural effect at the school."
Telford said school culture involves the principal, the parents' association as well as the teachers all encouraging fitness as well as academic achievement.
"The best teachers of literacy and numeracy happen to be the very same teachers that understand how important it is for a kid to be physically active for their health," he said.
In a separate study, Telford and colleagues looked at the effect of children being taught physical education by special PE teachers, instead of general classroom teachers.
They found those students taught by specialized PE teachers scored 10 to 13 points higher on the NAPLAN test scores.