According to a new study, having a healthy heart and lungs might be one of the most essential factors for middle school students to achieve good grades in math and reading.

The findings were presented at the American Psychological Association’s 120th Annual Convention revealing that physically fit boys and girls score higher on reading and math.

Trent A. Petrie, Ph.D., co-author of the study, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Sport Psychology at the University of North Texas, said:

“Cardiorespiratory fitness was the only factor that we consistently found to have an impact on both boys’ and girls’ grades on reading and math tests. This provides more evidence that schools need to re-examine any policies that have limited students’ involvement in physical education classes.”

Data was gathered at 5 Texas middle schools from 1,211 students, 54% were female with an average age of 12. The group, overall, was 57% white. Among the boys that were observed, 57.2% were white, 24.2% were Mexican-American, 9.1% African American, 1.1% Asian-American and 1.2% American Indian. Among the girls, 58.6% were white, 23.4% were Mexican-American, 9.2% were African-American, 2.3% Asian-American, and 0.6% were American Indian.

Studies in the past have also examined this relationship and found links between being physically fit and improved academic performance. This current study took a look into other possible influences, such as self-esteem and social support. According to Petrie, they also looked into the students’ socioeconomic status and their self-reported academic ability.

The researchers revealed that not only cardiorespiratory fitness was related to better reading scores among boys, but social support as well had an influence. Social support was defined, in this study, as reliable help and support from loved ones to solve problems or deal with emotions. Other than cardiorespiratory fitness, having a larger body mass index also had an effect on girls’ improved reading scores. On math tests, cardiorespiratory fitness was the only factor affecting scores for both girls and boys.

Petrie explained:

“The finding that a larger body mass index for girls was related to better performance on the reading exam may seem counterintuitive, however past studies have found being overweight was not as important for understanding boys and girls performance on tests as was their level of physical fitness.”

When students were scheduled to take their annual standardized reading and math tests, the students were given questions to answers from one to five months before the test, regarding their level of physical activity, and how they viewed their self-esteem, academic ability, and social support. At the end of the year, the school district gave researchers information on the students’ socioeconomic status and reading and math scores.

The research team worked with physical education teachers to administer a fitness assessment program, widely used in U.S. schools, in order to best determine the students’ physical fitness. The program contains many tests to assess muscular strength, aerobic capacity, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition. The assessment gave researchers an objective measure of cardiorespiratory fitness through the Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run, or PACER, and body composition through measuring body mass index (BMI).

Petrie concluded:

“Because this is a longitudinal study, these variables can now be considered risk factors in relation to middle school students’ performance on math and reading examinations. And that is essential to developing effective programs to support academic success.”

Written by Sarah Glynn