In a new Finnish study, highly active adolescents (ages 11 to 13) performed better in school during their transition from primary school to lower secondary school compared to their physically inactive peers.
However, the researchers from the University of Jyväskylä found that no cause-and-effect relationship can be made, as greater physical activity did not necessarily lead to improved academic performance.
“The link between physical activity and academic performance do not always reflect a causal relationship. It is possible that high levels of physical activity and good academic performance share the same attributes, such as high motivation towards the task at hand,” said Dr. Eero Haapala, postdoctoral researcher from the University of Jyväskylä.
Previous cross-sectional studies have reported that more physically active children and adolescents achieve better school grades than their less active peers do, but there are few longitudinal studies on the topic.
Cross-sectional studies involve observing data from a particular population at a certain point in time, while longitudinal studies involve repeated observations of the same variables over longer periods of time.
The new study investigated the longitudinal associations of physical activity with academic performance in 635 adolescents who were between 11 and 13 years old at baseline. Physical activity was assessed using a questionnaire and school grades were acquired from the school registers. Other factors such as parental education and pubertal status were controlled for in the analyses.
The new study shows that adolescents with higher levels of physical activity over a follow-up period of two academic years did have higher academic performance than did those who were continuously inactive.
However, the study shows that increased levels of physical activity did not automatically result in improved academic performance. In fact, adolescents who increased their physical activity had lower academic performance during the follow-up compared to their more active peers.
Therefore, based on these findings, no cause-and-effect conclusions can be made. In other words, it is not possible to say whether physical activity improves academic performance or if adolescents with higher academic performance choose a more physically active lifestyle, say the researchers.
Still, the results of the present study do not refute the findings of previous studies showing small but positive effects of physical activity on learning and its neural underpinnings.
Source: University of Jyväskylä