- Associated Press - Thursday, January 30, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A new study of Kansas elementary and middle school students found a link between physical fitness and better performance on math and reading exams.

The research was conducted through schools participating in the Kansas Fitness Information Tracking initiative. The study followed the fitness of 13,000 students from 152 schools in the 2011-12 school year.

The results, released Thursday at Topeka’s Seaman Middle School, found that students who met one or none of the fitness standards scored 50.4 percent and 41.8 percent above the proficiency standards for math and reading.

For students who met the mark for all five fitness tests, scores jumped to 73.5 percent above the standard for reading and 70.3 percent above for math.

Mark Thompson, project director for the Kansas Department of Education, said increased physical activity helped improve blood flow to the brain, improving student focus and concentration.

“This study is going to say there is a relationship,” he said, adding that most of the students in the study weren’t involved in extracurricular sports.

Diane DeBacker, commissioner of education, said the program encouraged students to be active and improve their fitness through regular exercise and proper diet. She told Seaman students to continue their efforts and involve their families.

“Let’s do something different than staying in the house. We want you to be the best you can be every day,” she said.

Officials said the research backs up efforts to increase physical activity in schools. Physical education time ranges in elementary and middle schools from 30 minutes daily to two or three periods a week. Kansas high school students are required to have one credit in physical education to graduate, which includes a health education component.

However, DeBacker and others said that schools had shifted away from dedicated physical education time in order to concentrate on math and reading scores with implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act in the early 2000s. The research, they said, could cause school districts to rethink those decisions.

“If you want students to perform better on state tests, you certainly don’t take away physical activity,” said Steve Coen, president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation.

Kaden Henley, 14, said he was active in baseball, basketball and cross country. Students are expected to maintain their grades to play on school teams, but he said that wasn’t the only motivating factor.

“Being healthy makes you happier and good in the classroom,” Henley said. “I think our generation is doing more to get active.”

The study, which is part of the Healthy Schools Project funded by the Kansas Health Foundation, continued this school year with more than 300 schools and 56,000 students participating. The program also involved the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and has the capacity to provide funds and materials for up to 900 schools.