Physical Activity Boosts Brain Power

Aerobic fitness linked to better academic performance.

Posted Feb 28, 2013

Healthy children come in all shapes and sizes. Being physically fit is more important than Body Mass Index (BMI) when it comes to getting good grades. A new study by Dr. Robert R. Rauner and colleagues from Lincoln Public Schools and Creighton University in Nebraska found that aerobic fitness has a greater effect on academic performance than weight. 

The study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that although BMI is an important indicator for overall health, it did not have a significant effect on test scores. “Although obesity is a concern for children, this study shows that aerobic fitness can have a greater effect on academic performance than weight,” the Journal said. 

Dr. Rauner and his team found found that aerobically-fit children were 2.4 times more likely to pass math tests and 2.2 times more likely to pass reading tests than aerobically-unfit children

Even though the consequences of childhood obesity are well known, many school districts across the country have reduced physical education classes and recess time. This new study highlights that regular activity is an important part of closing the achievement gap of "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB). Forcing kids to sit still and cram for tests on reading, writing, and arithmetic without including a regular outlet for physical activity can backfire. According to Dr. Rauner, "Schools sacrificing physical education and physical activity time in search of more seat time for math and reading instruction could potentially be pursuing a counterproductive approach." 

The study notes that both aerobic fitness and socio-economic status have a similar impact on academic performance. Among poorer children who received a free or reduced lunch at school, the odds of passing the tests were still greater than those of students who were aerobically-unfit, but not as high as those not receiving a free or reduced lunch. Because aerobic fitness is easier to improve than socio-economic stratification, Dr. Rauner is pushing for regular physical activity to be built into the school schedule. 

“Schools should think twice before taking minutes from physical education classes and recess,”  said Rauner. He said he passed the findings from his study on to the Lincoln schools superintendent and that one principal has since re-introduced recess time to allow children to run around and play. Rauner says that physical education has been treated as optional for U.S. schools in the past few decades, “but I am hopeful we have passed that low point…and can reverse things.”

Rebecca Hashim, a clinical psychologist at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, N.Y., believes that the results of this study are promising. Hashim, who works with obese children in the Bronx, said she encourages her clients to move their bodies more. “It’s hard if they are overweight as they avoid it.” Hashim said the findings are positive, but would like to see other studies in different or more racially diverse populations than Lincoln, Nebraska.

“There is well-established research showing that physical and mental well-being are connected," says Hashim.  "Some programs to treat depression use physical exercise, and studies with children show that exercise can raise self-esteem. If they feel better about themselves, perhaps they will do better academically. It makes sense," she said. "There is no known negative effect of exercise, so if it could improve well-being, why not put resources behind it?” 


This morning I had coffee with a friend who has two kids in elementary school and was discussing this new study with her. She told me that the school nurse had called her last week to let her know that both of her children were technically 'overweight' based on their BMI. The nurse apologized for seeming alarmist and let my friend know that she had to make the call....but that she also realized both kids were healthy, active, and doing great in school. BMI can be a misleading number. It doesn't take into account someone's overall body shape, muscle-mass, growth spurts, and other factors that throw off the ratio of height to body weight. 

I am on a mission to stop using the term "obesity epidemic" incessantly and to stop putting young people in a pigeonhole based solely on BMI. Yes, obesity is a huge problem. However, obsessing about BMI and numbers on a scale can be psychologically damaging and paralyzing. Nobody wants to be labeled or told they are 'less-than' based on external appearances or how much he or she weighs.    

Young people are more likely to become inspired and self-motivated to stay physically active if they associate exercise with feeling good, being happy, and succeeding in school. This study confirms that physical fitness is more important than BMI when it comes to mental acuity. People of all ages, shapes, and sizes can boost brain power and self-esteem by improving aerobic fitness. So, as Michelle Obama says, "Let's Move!