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Math Performance Linked to Child's Weight, Study Finds

Could being obese as a child hinder a student's success with mathematics? A new study suggests that childhood obesity and math performance are related.

The study, published online today in the journal Child Development, focuses on data for 6,250 children from the start of kindergarten through 5th grade, taken from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K). For this study, data from five time points were used: both fall and spring in kindergarten, spring in 1st grade, spring in 3rd grade, and spring in 5th grade.

Researchers discovered that both boys and girls who were persistently obese throughout their K-5 years performed significantly worse on math tests than their peers of healthy weight in 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades. For girls, their weight status as they entered kindergarten had a "marginally significant" effect on their math performance, too.

The researchers also examined boys and girls who became progressively more obese over time, known as the "later onset obesity group." In this group, boys' weight status was found to have no significant effect on their math performance; however, compared with the never-obese group, girls in this group performed significantly worse than their peers in the spring of 1st and 3rd grades.

"The findings illustrate the complexity of relations among children's weight status, social and emotional well-being, academics, and time," said lead study author Sara Gable, associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri, Columbia, in a statement.

Gable and her two colleagues attempted to surmise why obesity could have an effect on a young child's success with math, suggesting that it could compromise a young child's social skills or relationships with friends.

The researchers discovered that both boys' and girls' math performance was significantly affected by their interpersonal skills, increasingly so as they progressed through elementary school. Based on their data, they suggest that "part of the association between weight status and math can be explained by teacher ratings of child interpersonal skills," but that only holds true for girls.

"Our study suggests that obesity in the early years of school, especially obesity that persists across the elementary grades, can harm children's social and emotional well-being and academic performance," Gable said.

The authors call for future research into "other areas of child functioning that could mediate or moderate the association between weight status and academic performance, such as poor sleep quality and asthma or diabetes."

Speaking from personal experience, I'm guessing that I would have qualified for the "later onset obesity" group back in elementary school. For what it's worth, I was, and still am, the king of simple math. (Once you throw letters into equations, though? Count me out.)

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