Lifestyle Impact on Academic Performance

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A healthy lifestyle (participating in daily physical activity, having a healthy nutrition intake, reduced television usage, eating breakfast) appears to aid academic performance.  In addition, a longitudinal study found a link between fitness and academic performance.

There is a lot of conflicting research on the effect students' lifestyle plays on their academic performance. However, two studies published in 2011 found physical activity and a healthy diet play a large role in academic performance.

One of the major problems researchers face when trying to link physical activity or nutrition intake to academic performance is lurking variables. For example, socioeconomic status is a good indicator of academic status. Students from higher socioeconomic strata tend to be more physically fit and nourished. Thus, it is hard to determine cause and effect. Students who are overweight generally have lower self-esteem, another factor in academic performance. Other factors, such as family issues, can simultaneously impact physical fitness, nutrition intake and academic performance. To account for lurking factors, one approach is to do a multivariable longitudinal study, in which the relation between lifestyle and academic performance can only be affected by variables introduced over the course of the longitudinal study. For example, factors such as race, gender and socioeconomic status would remain constant over the course of the longitudinal study.

One longitudinal study used the California Department of Education's physical fitness test, which incorporates aerobic, anaerobic and flexibility components, to track fitness and the California state-wide standardized test to track academic achievement (A Longitudinal Examination of the Link Between Youth Physical Fitness and Academic Achievement, 2011, Rebecca London and Sebastian Castrechini). Two cohorts of students were tracked for four years: one from 4th to 7th grade and a second from 6th to 9th grade. Some interesting observations came out of this study. First, academic success was linked to being white, from an upper socioeconomic class and ability to pass the physical fitness test. Second, the gap in test performance between those who passed the physical fitness test and those who did not became wider over the course of the study. Third, the academic achievement gap between the physically fit and unfit was wider for students from a low socioeconomic background. Fourth, one's ability to pass the physical test was found to be a predictor of academic achievement than BMI.  

Perhaps the most interesting item from the longitudinal study were the academic performance results of those students who passed the initial physical fitness test, but four years later failed the physical fitness test and vice versa. Those who initially passed the physical fitness test, but failed it four years later, were initially on par with the high academic achieving group that passed the physical fitness test both times. Over the four years of the study, this group saw a steady decline to the poor academic achievement seen by the group of students who failed both initial and final physical fitness tests. These results are displayed in the chart below.

Z-score on English Language Arts standardized test as a function of grade and physical fitness.

The other aforementioned study looked at correlations between academic performance, physical activity and nutrition (Relationship of Nutrition and Physical Activity Behaviors and Fitness Measures to Academic Performance for Sixth Graders in a Midwest School District, 2011, Jane Edwards, Lois Mauch, Mark Winkelman). The study looked at 800 sixth graders from Fargo School District in North Dakota. A survey was used to determine daily physical activity, nutritional intake and other lifestyle behaviors. Fitness measures were taken with a mile run, curl-ups, push-ups, height and weight. Academic performance was measured with a reading assessment and math assessment.

Gender and an ability to pay full price for school meals were associated with higher assessment scores. Males did better in math and females did better on reading. Math scores were higher in students who drank more milk and less sweetened beverages (soda, juice), ate breakfast more frequently, had more vigorous physical activity, watched less television, played on sports teams and had better performance on the mile run. Higher reading scores were associated with students who drank less sweetened beverages, had more vigorous and moderate physical activity and watched less television.

One fourth of the students reported spending more than 3 hours a day watching television on school days. In addition, students who had televisions in their bedrooms had higher television usage and spent less time reading.

Only a third of students get the recommended 5 fruits and vegetables a day.

Students who eat breakfast generally have reduced tardiness and better attendance. Breakfast has been shown to increase attention span and memory in students. Students who were obese did not show significant differences in test performance in math or reading. This supports the previous study's conclusion that fitness, not BMI, is a better predictor of academic achievement.  More than four-fiths of students reported getting in at least 20 minutes of physical activity a day, but only one-third reported daily physical activity exceeding an hour. Only a third of the students reported eating 5 fruits or vegetables a day.

In summary, a student's lifestyle plays a role in his or her academic performance. Both studies discussed here suggest that physical activity is linked to better academic performance. Other factors such as eating breakfast, avoiding sweetened beverages, watching less television also appear to play a role in a students success.

If you have personal experience with a healthy lifestyle boosting (or not boosting) academic performance please share it! Please leave your comments on this research.

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