The Longitudinal Associations of Fitness and Motor Skills With Academic Achievement

Heidi J. Syväoja; Anna Kankaanpää; Laura Joensuu; Jouni Kallio; Harto Hakonen; Charles H. Hillman; Tuija H. Tammelin


Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019;51(10):2050-2057. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Purpose: This study aimed to examine both independent and dependent longitudinal associations of physical fitness (PF) components with academic achievement.

Methods: A total of 954 fourth to seventh graders (9–15 yr [M age = 12.5 yr], 52% girls) from nine schools throughout Finland participated in a 2-yr follow-up study. Register-based academic achievement scores (grade point average [GPA]) and PF were assessed in the spring of 2013–2015. Aerobic fitness was measured with a maximal 20-m shuttle run test, muscular fitness with curl-up and push-up tests, and motor skills with a 5-leaps test and a throwing–catching combination test. Structural equation modeling was applied to examine the longitudinal associations adjusting for age, gender, pubertal stage, body fat percentage, learning difficulties, and mother's education.

Results: The changes in aerobic and muscular fitness were positively associated with the changes in GPA (B = 0.27, 99% confidence interval [CI] = 0.06–0.48; B = 0.36, 99% CI = 0.11–0.63, respectively), whereas the changes in motor skills were not associated with the changes in GPA. Better motor skills in year 2 predicted better GPA a year later (B = 0.06, 99% CI = 0.00–0.11; B = 0.06, 99% CI = 0.01–0.11), whereas aerobic and muscular fitness did not predict GPA. GPA in year 1 predicted both aerobic (B = 0.08, 99% CI = 0.01–0.15) and muscular (B = 0.08, 99% CI = 0.02–0.15) fitness, and motor skills (B = 0.08, 99% CI = 0.02–0.15) a year later.

Conclusion: The changes in both aerobic and muscular fitness were positively associated with the changes in academic achievement during adolescence, whereas the changes in motor skills had only borderline significant association. However, better motor skills, although not systematically, independently predicted better academic achievement 1 yr later, whereas aerobic or muscular fitness did not. Better academic achievement predicted better motor skills, aerobic fitness, and muscular fitness. Developmental changes in adolescence may induce parallel and simultaneous changes in academic achievement and PF.


Physical fitness (PF), including aerobic fitness, muscular fitness, and motor skills in childhood and adolescence, predicts many aspects of health later in life.[1–3] In addition, higher levels of PF have been associated with better academic achievement in children and adolescents using both cross-sectional[4–6] and longitudinal[7–9] studies. More specifically, aerobic fitness[10–13] and motor skills,[14–17] but not muscular fitness,[12,18] have been positively associated with academic achievement.[17] However, the associations of muscular fitness[19] and motor skills[17] with academic achievement have not been as extensively studied and are far less reported, to date. Despite previous literature indicating a largely positive relationship between PF and academic achievement, there remain inconsistencies in the findings as well as a lack of longitudinal studies adjusting for important confounding factors[20] to better understand the direct and indirect relationships among these variables. Importantly, no studies have examined independent or dependent predictive effects of aerobic or muscular fitness and motor skills on academic achievement.

Accordingly, the purpose of this study was to examine the longitudinal association of different components of PF with academic achievement while accounting for other factors (e.g., age, gender, pubertal stage, body fat percentage, learning difficulties, and mother's education) that have been found to relate to physical and academic outcomes. We further examined whether PF components in previous years independently or dependently predicted future academic achievement and vice versa. We predicted that changes in PF would be positively associated with changes in academic achievement and that PF components would independently predict future academic achievement. From a public health perspective, it is important to understand whether these health factors may also underline academic achievement, linking physical and cognitive health.