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Physically Fit Students Perform Better Academically, Study Finds

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Kansas elementary and middle school students who met certain physical-fitness benchmarks were considerably more likely to exceed reading and math performance standards, finds a new study released last week.

The study assessed data from more than 13,000 Kansas students in grades 4 through 9 from 152 schools across the state. Students underwent five FITNESSGRAM tests—curl-ups, 20-meter laps, trunk lifts, 90-degree push-ups, and the sit-and-reach—to determine whether their aerobic capacity, endurance, flexibility, and muscle strength fell into a "healthy fitness zone" for their age and gender.

After gathering that data, researchers compared the students' performance on state reading and math assessments during the 2011-12 school year to the number of "healthy fitness zone" standards that they met. As it turned out, the percentage of students who performed above the standard on those state assessments grew based upon the number of fitness standards they achieved.

Below is the breakdown of how students fared on reading and math assessments, based on how many healthy-fitness-zone standards they met:

"The study is going to say it's a relationship, which talks about it being a correlation," said Mark Thompson, project director for the Kansas State Department of Education's Healthy Kansas Schools project, to the Lawrence Journal-World. "But at some point we can start looking at the research behind why it might happen and start talking about it being a potential causal relationship."

This isn't the first study to discover a link between physical activity and academic performance. A systematic review published online in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine back in January 2012 found "strong evidence of a significant positive relationship" between the two.

The authors of the review suggested that the link could be caused by a number of factors, including increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain, boosts in hormones such as norepinephrine and endorphins, which help improve mood, and "increased growth factors that help create new nerve cells and support synaptic plasticity."

A study published online in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness in December of that same year found that middle school students in prime physical shape outperformed their overweight and obese peers both on tests and grades.

Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker told the Journal-World that the state has no set standards for how many minutes per day or per week elementary students engage in physical education. The findings of this study may cause the state to "move in [the] direction" of putting more emphasis on phys. ed., DeBacker said.

Photo: Students at Topeka Seaman Middle School perform a running demonstration in Topeka last week. They took part in the Kansas Fitness Information Tracking program, which studied what turned out to be a positive link between physical activity and student test scores. (AP)

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