There is no doubt that being physically active as one grows up is good for lifelong mental and physical health. And evidence also suggests it is important for brain health and academic performance. But exactly which components of kids’ physical fitness contribute to academic performance has not been clear until now; a new study by researchers in Spain looked at it in more detail and found cardiorespiratory capacity and motor ability may have the strongest influence.

For the study, the Spanish team examined three aspects of physical fitness: cardiorespiratory capacity, muscular strength and motor ability.

The researchers studied their separate and combined influence on academic performance, as lead author Irene Esteban-Cornejo, of the Autonomous University of Madrid, explains:

“Because these physical fitness components are highly associated with each other, it is important to differentiate which physical fitness components are important in relation to academic performance.”

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Researchers found that cardiorespiratory capacity and motor ability are linked to academic performance.

The researchers analyzed data from the UP & DOWN Study, which followed 2,038 Spanish children aged from 6 to 18 years and collected complete data on physical fitness, body composition and academic performance.

Cardiorespiratory capacity is a measure of how well the heart and lungs can supply fuel and oxygen to the muscles during exercise. For this measure, the participants completed shuttle run or “bleep” tests, a common method for assessing maximal aerobic fitness.

Motor ability includes speed of movement, agility and coordination, and for this study was also assessed using shuttle runs, while muscular strength was measured by maximum handgrip and standing long jumps.

To assess academic performance, the researchers used end-of-year school grades for core subjects.

They found that cardiorespiratory capacity and motor ability, both separately and together, were linked to academic performance. However, the link between academic performance and physical fitness was stronger for motor ability, suggesting that speed of movement, agility, and coordination may be more important for academic performance than aerobic fitness.

The results also showed that children and adolescents who had both lower levels of cardiorespiratory capacity and motor ability had lower grades.

Muscular strength on its own was not linked to academic performance.

The researchers say the findings suggest in a bid to improve children’s grades, efforts should be made to promote physical activity that encourages them to exercise aerobically and engage in motor tasks that develop physical speed, agility and coordination.

There is also growing evidence that learning music improves the brain. For instance, Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggests musical training may improve executive brain function in children and adults. The executive region of the brain is responsible for decision making, problem solving, regulating behavior and other important cognitive functions.