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Students' Fitness Linked to Higher Test Scores

Think physical education isn't that important?

In the public schools in Lincoln, Neb., students who passed the district's physical-fitness test were significantly more likely to pass state reading and math tests, according to a recent article from the Lincoln Journal Star.

Dr. Bob Rauner, who collected data from the district for the past two years, told the paper that 80.4 percent of the students who passed the fitness test either met or exceeded state standards in math, compared with only 65.8 percent of students who didn't pass the fitness test.

A similar divide was apparent in the reading scores. According to Rauner, 84.3 percent of the students who passed the fitness test met or exceeded state standards in reading, while only 71.3 percent of students who failed the fitness test hit those benchmarks.

"It's the fitness that makes the difference," Rauner said. "If you have to choose between being a little overweight and being fit, it's better to be fit. It's better than being normal weight and not fit."

The Lincoln district hired a full-time wellness facilitator back in August and started requiring elementary schools this year to provide at least one recess period per day, along with "activity breaks."

"I think people are starting to realize recess time is associated with achievement," Rauner told the paper.

What's happening in the Lincoln school system only adds to the evidence that exercise and physical fitness are linked to greater mental capacities.

An elementary school in Charleston, S.C., found a similar link when educators there discovered that in-class physical activity led their students to score higher on standardized tests.

In 2008, Dr. John Ratey wrote a book, Spark, that explored the connection between physical activity and the brain's performance. Without getting too scientific here, Ratey discovered that exercise essentially releases a chemical, which he calls "Miracle-Gro for the brain," that enhances the process of learning.

Ratey leads his book by describing a high school in Naperville, Ill., where a number of students participate in a before-school session of phys. ed. known as "Zero Hour." Not-so-coincidentally, those same students often see a huge jump in their test scores, report being more awake during the school day, and help the school rank in the top 10 in the state most years.

The mixture of No Child Left Behind and budget cuts often has left recess and physical education programs on the chopping block in schools nationwide, as core subjects became higher priorities.

With more and more evidence emerging that physical fitness and exercise can actually boost learning, school officials have something to keep in mind the next time they're looking to slash phys. ed. programs.

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