WebExtra: Research links exercise, student achievement

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* The California Department of Education found that students who scored higher on the 2001 state-wide FitnessGram in 5th, 7th and 9th grade also scored substantially higher on state-wide standardized tests in math and reading, even when it controlled for poverty. That doesn’t prove that fitness caused higher test scores, but it does suggest a correlation, says Diane Wilson-Graham, a physical education consultant with department. The study was based on records of 954,000 students.

*Several studies found that replacing some class time with physical education boosted standardized math scores, according to a review of the research by Action for Healthy Kids. (For more, see “The Learning Connection” at www.actionforhealthykids.org).

* The research that directly links a healthy weight to academic achievement is still tenuous, Action for Healthy Kids reports. Some research has found that overweight children are more likely to have low test scores, but both could be the result of other factors, such as poverty. However, one recent study that controlled for the mother’s education level and other factors found that overweight boys were more likely to have lower math test scores.

* Many studies find that overweight children are more likely to suffer from health problems, such as asthma and diabetes, which may keep them out of school, according to Action for Healthy Kids.

* Overweight children are more likely to suffer from depression, which could potentially impact their school performance. Severely overweight children report a quality of life similar to that of children battling cancer, according to a study that appeared in the April 2003 Journal of the American Medical Association.

* Adding even a limited amount of exercise to the school week can help combat obesity, a recent study found. In schools that added an extra hour of PE each week, the proportion of overweight girls fell by 10 percent in 1st grade, according to the 2004 study, released by the National Institute for Health Care Management. (Results for their 3rd- and 5th-grade years will be released at a later date.)

The additional exercise had less impact on boys, who tended to be more physically active outside of school. Adding even more exercise to the school week would have an even bigger impact on the obesity rate among girls, researchers concluded.