To examine the complex relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement, researchers from the John W. Gardner Center used the Youth Data Archive (YDA) to follow students over four academic years. This study links students’ California Standardized Test (CST) scores in math and English Language Arts (ELA), administered every year, to their performance on the California Physical Fitness Test (PFT), which tests students in grades 5, 7, and 9. Although there are differences in demographic characteristics based on PFT performance, the results of this analysis show a consistent link between physical fitness and academic achievement beyond the effects of those demographic differences. The main findings are: (1) Students who passed the PFT in both years had higher CST scores than those who failed in both years. (2) Students whose fitness improved between 5th and 7th grade had higher CST scores than students whose fitness declined. (3) Only improvements in overall fitness, not any single fitness measure, are linked to achievement gains. This study cannot conclude that better physical fitness causes better test scores; however, the analysis does show that the two are certainly linked. Fitness is just one piece of the achievement puzzle and not the sole focus for districts struggling with limited resources, but research points to several strategies involving few additional resources that can improve student fitness, including maximizing existing opportunities to improve fitness, expanding partnerships, and engaging the community.
London, R. and Castrechini, S. (2009). Exploring the link between physical fitness and academic achievement. Stanford, CA: John W. Gardner Center for Youth and their Communities.