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Fitness and Academic Achievement


status. Cross-sectional studies of the relationship between academic achievement and physical fitness as well as academic achievement and physical activity have had mixed results ranging from small, but positive effects (CDE, 2001; Dwyer et al., 1983; Sallis et al., 1999) to trivial, negative relationships (Tremblay et al., 2000). Most of these data were generated from physical activity interventions, which focused on changing the child’s physical environment (e.g., home or school) to increase physical activity participation. Because most children attend public schools, it is believed that educational institutions may be the most plausible means of increasing the physical activity participation of children. Schools and teachers are presently being asked to address not only academic achievement, but also public heath issues such as childhood obesity. Despite public concern for health issues among youth, physical activity opportunities are currently being reduced (Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005) and childhood obesity rates are on the rise (McKenzie & Kahan, 2004; Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005; USDHHS, 2000).

Possible Mechanisms.

The complexity of the










physical activity and fitness specifically identify possible

mechanisms. In general, physical activity has the potential to improve physical fitness, particularly when chronic behavior targets increased fitness. Etnier et al. (1997) conducted a meta-analysis of the relationship between physical activity and cognition, and concluded that potential changes in cognition (e.g., academic achievement) may stem from (a) physiological mechanisms that are independent of aerobic fitness, (b) physiological mechanisms dependent upon attainment of aerobic

fitness, or (c) psychological mechanisms that are independent of aerobic fitness.

Greater aerobic fitness has been associated with changes in neurocognitive function (Hillman et al., 2005), as higher fit children exhibited a more effective neuroelectric profile than lower fit children on a stimulus discrimination task. The higher fit children also performed better along behavioral measures of reaction time and response accuracy, perhaps stemming from greater allocation of attentional resources to working memory, which supports similar research on fitness and cognition in adult populations (Kramer & Hillman, 2006). Others mechanisms by which fitness may relate to benefits in brain and cognition have also been posited, including changes in the structure and function of brain tissue in elderly adults (Kramer & Hillman, 2006).

Shephard (1997) identified several alternative explanations for the positive relationships between physical fitness and academic performance: (a) teacher attitudes, (b) student attitudes, (c) learning disabilities, and (d) public policy. To address the alternative explanation related to teacher attitudes, teachers from the same school district who enact the same curriculum were utilized. Additionally, researchers, not teachers, administered the Fitnessgram to the children, providing for increased control and consistency of fitness test administration, which differed from previous school-based research (cf. CDE, 2001). Issues related to public policy were addressed through recruitment of the specific school district, as the same number of physical education opportunities were offered by each school. Rather, this school district had obtained a state waiver allowing for fewer physical education opportunities (e.g., fewer days per week) than required by public policy.

To account for Shephard’s (1997) alternative explanation related to learning disabilities, children who had an individual education plan or received special

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