Adolescents with higher levels of physical activity performed better in school during transition; from primary school to lower secondary school than their physically inactive peers; a new study from Finland shows. However, the researchers, from the University of Jyväskylä, found that increased physical activity did not necessarily result in improved academic performance.

Previous cross-sectional studies have reported that physically more active children; and adolescents achieve better school grades than their less active peers do, but there are few longitudinal studies on the topic. A newly published study showed that adolescents with higher levels of physical activity over a follow-up period of two academic years; had higher academic performance than did those who were continuously inactive. Furthermore, the study showed that increased levels of physical activity; do not automatically result in improved academic performance.

Highly active adolescents

Instead, the results suggest that those adolescents who increased their physical activity; had lower academic performance during the follow-up compared to their more active peers. Highly active adolescents performed better in school compared to their less active peers. However, the results showed that increasing physical activity over a period of two academic years; did not necessarily improve academic performance.

Based on our results, it is not possible to say whether physical activity improves academic performance; or if adolescents with higher academic performance choose a physically active lifestyle. Therefore, no causal interpretations can made. However, the results of the present study do not refute the findings of previous studies; showing small but positive effects of physical activity on learning and its neural underpinnings.

Parental education and pubertal status

“The link between physical activity and academic performance do not always reflect a causal relationship. It is possible that high levels of physical activity and good academic performance share the same attributes; such as high motivation towards the task at hand,” says Eero Haapala, postdoctoral researcher from the University of Jyväskylä. The study investigated the longitudinal associations of physical activity with academic performance; in 635 adolescents who were between 11 and 13 years old at baseline.

Physical activity was assessed using a questionnaire and school grades acquired from the school registers. Several confounding factors such as parental education and pubertal status controlled for in the analyses. Lower levels of MVPA were associated with lower GPA in boys at baseline. Girls who were continuously inactive had lower GPA over the follow-up period than those who were continuously active. Finally, earlier pubertal development associated with better academic achievement in girls.