A sedentary lifestyle is linked to poorer academic performance in boys, according to research published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.
The study, by the University of Jyväskylä and the University of Cambridge, found that reading skills in six- to eight-year-old boys were particularly affected by activity levels.
The researchers assessed physical activity levels and time spent sedentary and cross-compared this data with reading and arithmetic skills in 153 children between the ages of six and eight.
Physical activity and sedentary time were measured objectively using a combined heart rate and movement sensor. Reading and arithmetic skills were assessed by standardised tests.
The study showed that high levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, low levels of sedentary time, and in particular a combination of both were related to better reading skills in boys. High levels of physical activity and low levels of sedentary time were also associated with better arithmetic skills.
In girls there were no ‘strong and consistent’ associations found between physical activity and sedentary time.
The results suggest that a combination of low levels of physical activity and high levels of sedentary time might be particularly harmful for the development of academic skills in boys, and that increasing physical activity could improve academic achievement.
Eero Haapala, the study’s lead author, said: ‘Low levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and high levels of sedentary time … were related to better reading skills in grades one to three among boys. We also observed that boys who had a combination of low levels of physical activity and high levels of sedentary time had the poorest reading skills through grades one to three.’
This study offers a fresh perspective on the importance of physical activity — not just for general health, but (possibly) for academic achievement too. The assessment methods were quite in depth but the study group is undeniably small (89 boys and 69 girls). There can be no conclusion as to the cause of this association, or why it may differ between boys and girls.
In the discussion section of the study several hypotheses are suggested; for example, the idea that physical activity has a stronger impact on friendship networks and self-esteem in boys than it does in girls at this age, and thus affects general engagement in school life. However, this is merely speculative and more research would need to be done in order to establish these.
Research score: 3/5