Physically fit children appear to do better in classroom, researchers say

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The health benefits of exercise -- across the lifespan -- have been well documented. More recently, scientists have begun to demonstrate that exercise also may improve cognitive functioning in older adults.

But what about children? Are physically fit kids better suited to compete not only on the ball field, but in the classroom as well?

University of Illinois researchers have been exploring these and other related questions in a series of studies during the past two years, and preliminary results indicate a correlation.

"We have found a strong relationship between academic achievement and fitness scores," said Darla Castelli, a professor of kinesiology whose area of expertise is effective physical education practices. "Those who scored well in academics also did well in physical fitness. We're not suggesting that if we run more laps it will make us smarter, but there does appear to be a correlation."

Castelli noted that teachers who work closely with young and preadolescent children have long suspected a link between physical fitness and cognitive function. Anecdotal evidence is plentiful, she said, but empirical data to back up those assumptions have been harder to come by.

That's why Castelli jumped at the chance to team with colleague Charles Hillman, also a kinesiology professor at Illinois, to examine possible connections more thoroughly. Hillman's primary research focus is on executive control and cognitive function in elderly adults, which involves studying the effects of exercise on older individuals' abilities to process complex mental tasks.

Together, with assistance from graduate student Sarah Buck, Castelli and Hillman conducted a series of studies with school-aged children and control groups of adults. Data were gathered on subjects' physical attributes (height, weight, body mass), fitness levels and cognitive abilities.

Much of the data was collected first

Contact: Melissa Mitchell, News Editor
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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