BACKGROUND: Childhood obesity has been linked with other persistent health problems, but research is just beginning to examine its relationship with academic performance. This article tracks students longitudinally to examine the ways student physical fitness and changes in fitness align with school performance.
METHODS: Using matched administrative data and individual growth modeling, we examine the relationship between academic achievement and overall physical fitness longitudinally from fourth to seventh and sixth to ninth grades for students in a California community.
RESULTS: Comparing those who are persistently fit to those who are persistently unfit, we find disparities in both math and English language arts test scores. These academic disparities begin even before students begin fitness testing in fifth grade and are larger for girls and Latinos. Overall physical fitness is a better predictor of academic achievement than obesity as measured by body mass index. Socioeconomic status acts as a buffer for those who have poor physical fitness but strong academic performance.
CONCLUSION: The findings indicate the presence of a physical fitness achievement gap that has consequences for potential students' future educational and health outcomes. This gap begins as early as fourth grade, which is before physical fitness testing begins in California.