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Wood researchers: active kids do better academically

Read more of The Shape We're In

PARKERSBURG -- In 2005, Wood County school nurse Karen Northrup wanted to show that a child performs better academically if that child is physically fit.

"There was an easy way to do that: compare fifth-graders' scores on the FITNESSGRAM and their BMI with their academic scores on the WESTEST standardized achievement test, to see how they correlate," she said.

The FITNESSGRAM is a yearly test of each child's physical fitness. Body mass index is measure of fat calculated from a person's weight and height.

Northrup joined forces with Dick Wittberg, Mid Ohio Valley Health Department director and Lesley Cottrell, a West Virginia University pediatric researcher. Seven years later, they have published four major research papers full of hard data, with three interrelated major findings:

  • The higher a child's fitness scores are, the higher that child's WESTEST academic scores are likely to be in math, language arts and science.
  • The heavier a child is, the more likely that child is to score poorly on the WESTEST, even after researchers took financial need into account. About 22 percent of Wood County fifth-graders are obese.
  • Aerobic fitness overrules obesity. Even if a child is obese, if that child scores high on aerobic fitness on the FITNESSGRAM, the child is likely to score high on the academic test.
  • "That means that the shape you're in is more important than the shape you are," Wittberg said. An overweight child who is physically fit will score better academically, as a rule, than a "healthy weight" child who is not fit.

    "Aerobic fitness was even more strongly related to the children's test scores than obesity, which was significantly related," Cottrell said. "That is a very important finding."

     "It is more important to get kids fit than to get them to lose pounds," Wittberg said. If children become fit, weight loss will follow.

     "It says that, if you can get a child more fit, you stand a good chance of improving that child's academic performance, no matter what the child's weight is," Cottrell said.

    At a time when schools are cutting back on P.E. and recess to drill children for the WESTEST, "that has immediate policy implications for the state," she said. "This research shows we're going in the wrong direction in terms of the structure of our school day. Children need more physical activity, not less."  

    The three have presented their research at national conferences of the American Heart Association, the National Association of School Nurses, and the American Public Health Association.  They also presented to the West Virginia Board of Education.

    "I have been influenced by their work," said state Superintendent Jorea Marple. "They gave us homegrown research that confirms what researchers in other states and around the world have found is also true in West Virginia." 

    Reach Kate Long at 304-348-1798 or katelong@wvgazette.com.

    "The Shape We're In" was written with the help of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships http://www.reportingonhealth.org/, at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. 


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