Cross-Lagged Path Models
The estimation results of the bivariate cross-lagged path models revealed that better motor skills at T2 predicted better GPA a year later (B = 0.06, 99% CI = 0.01–0.11), but not vice versa, whereas aerobic and muscular fitness had a borderline significant predictive effect on GPA (B = 0.05, 99% CI = 0.00–0.10 and B = 0.04, 99% CI = −0.01–0.09, respectively) (see Results, Cross-Lagged Path Models, and Tables S1 and S3, Supplemental Digital Content 1, for details on the modeling procedure, http://links.lww.com/MSS/B620, and Table S4, Supplemental Digital Content 1, for results, http://links.lww.com/MSS/B620). Better GPA at T1 predicted better aerobic and muscular fitness (B = 0.08, 99% CI = 0.03–0.13 and B = 0.08, 99% CI = 0.00–0.16, respectively) and motor skills (B = 0.09, 99% CI = 0.01–0.17) a year later, but not vice versa. The following results are the estimated results of the final models, including GPA, motor skills, and aerobic fitness or muscular fitness in the same model (see text and Tables S1 and S3, Supplemental Digital Content 1, for details on the modeling procedure, http://links.lww.com/MSS/B620). All the regressions were adjusted for age, gender, pubertal stage, body fat percentage, mother’s education, and learning difficulties.
Better GPA at T1 predicted better aerobic fitness at T2 (B = 0.08, 99% CI = 0.01–0.15, Fig. 2A). Furthermore, a predictive effect of GPA at T2 on better aerobic fitness at T3 was borderline significant (B = 0.07, 99% CI = −0.01–0.15; Fig. 2A). Better GPA at T1 predicted better muscular fitness at T2 (B = 0.08, 99% CI = 0.02–0.15; Fig. 2B), but GPA at T2 did not predict muscular fitness at T3. Similarly, better GPA at T1 predicted better motor skills at T2 (B = 0.08, 99% CI = 0.01–0.15, Fig. 2A; B = 0.08, 99% CI = 0.02–0.15, Fig. 2B), but GPA at T2 did not predict motor skills at T3.
Aerobic and muscular fitness
Aerobic fitness or muscular fitness did not predict GPA. Better aerobic fitness predicted better motor skills at every time point (B = 0.09, 99% CI = 0.02–0.17; B = 0.08, 99% CI = 0.01–0.16), and motor skills at T1 predicted better aerobic fitness at T2 (B = 0.07, 99% CI = 0.00–0.15) (Fig. 2A). Likewise, better muscular fitness predicted better motor skills (B = 0.08, 99% CI = 0.02–0.15; B = 0.13, 99% CI = 0.06–0.20), and vice versa at T1 (B = 0.13, 99% CI = 0.04–0.21) (Fig. 2B).
Better motor skills at T2 predicted better GPA at T3 (B = 0.06, 99% CI = 0.00–0.11, Fig. 2A; B = 0.06, 99% CI = 0.01–0.11, Fig. 2B). However, motor skills at T1 did not predict GPA at T2.
A positive predictive effect of aerobic fitness on GPA through motor skills was borderline significant (B = 0.005, SE = 0.002, P = 0.029). Likewise, a positive predictive effect of muscular fitness on GPA through motor skills was borderline significant (B = 0.003, SE = 0.001, P = 0.028).
Main study findings
This 2-yr longitudinal study showed that changes in both aerobic and muscular fitness were positively associated with changes in academic achievement during adolescence, whereas changes in motor skills had only borderline significant association with changes in academic achievement. However, better motor skills at T2 independently predicted better academic achievement 1 yr later, whereas aerobic or muscular fitness did not. Further, better academic achievement at T1 predicted better motor skills, aerobic fitness, and muscular fitness at T2. In addition to direct analyses, indirect analyses suggest that both aerobic and muscular fitness may have a positive predictive effect on academic achievement through motor skills performance.
Motor skills and academic achievement
Previous studies have shown that better motor skills in childhood and adolescence predict better academic achievement later in adolescence (14,16). Kantomaa et al. (14) showed that compromised motor skills (fundamental movement skills and fine motor skills) in childhood predicted lower academic achievement in adolescence. Similarly, Jaakkola et al. (16) showed that higher fundamental movement skills measured in grade 8 predicted better academic achievement in grade 9. Although the change in motor skills was not clearly associated with the change in academic achievement, our results support previous findings by showing that better motor skills at T2 predicted better academic achievement 1 yr later. However, a similar association was not seen during the year before (T1). Furthermore, our results are in line with Muntader-Mas et al. (17), who showed that speed–agility had a strongest and most independent (of other fitness components) association with academic achievement.
Aerobic and muscular fitness and academic achievement
Previous longitudinal studies have shown that higher fit adolescents have higher academic achievement scores compared with lower fit adolescents; however, these studies have not been able to demonstrate a significant effect of the fitness trajectory on academic achievement scores across time (7,8). The latest longitudinal studies demonstrated that improvements in aerobic fitness (13) and PF in general (9) were associated with improvements in academic achievements. Bezold et al. (9) indicated that an increase in fitness expressed as a composite of three fitness test (aerobic capacity, muscle strength, and endurance) was associated with an increase in academic scores and, importantly, that a decrease in fitness was also associated with a decrease in academic scores.
Our results are in line with these previous studies showing that change in both aerobic and muscular fitness was positively associated with change in academic achievement. However, given the nature the study design, our findings from linear growth curve analysis do not yet indicate a causal relationship. That is, the observed changes in fitness measures and academic achievement that occur around the same point in development suggest a beneficial relationship between physical health and cognition, but such an observation may be due to other (unidentified) factors and, thus, may be independent of each other. Our cross-lagged analyses strengthen this idea. Aerobic or muscular fitness did not predict academic achievement independently. The predictive association of both aerobic and muscular fitness with future academic achievement became marginally significant when body fat percentage were added to the bivariate models (see Results, Table S5 and Fig. S1, Supplemental Digital Content 1, for details, http://links.lww.com/MSS/B620). Although body fat and aerobic or muscular fitness did not have statistically significant interaction effects on academic achievement in this study, body fat appears to hinder the predictive effect of fitness on some level. The related study of Esteban-Cornejo et al. (30) showed that even in a homogeneous sample of overweight and obese children, body fat mediated the association of aerobic fitness and overall cortical thickness and suggested that body fat may hinder the beneficial effect of fitness on brain health. Furthermore, when motor skills were added to the models along with aerobic or muscular fitness and body fat, the predictive effect of aerobic fitness and muscular fitness became nonsignificant (Fig. 2), illustrating the strong role of motor skills. These findings differ from previous findings, which suggest that aerobic fitness is independently associated with academic achievement (12,13). More longitudinal research is needed to clarify the independent and dependent predictive effects of PF on academic achievement and cognitive health.
In this study, we also examined the indirect effects of aerobic and muscular fitness with academic achievement through motor skills. The findings herein suggest that aerobic and muscular fitness did not predict academic achievement directly but may have a positive predictive effect on academic achievement via motor skills performance. These results suggest that motor skills performance is a stronger factor in association with academic achievement than aerobic or muscular fitness and may underlie the associations of aerobic and muscular fitness with academic success. Previous studies have shown that low perceptions of motor competence predict physical inactivity, poor fitness, and obesity, whereas low levels of physical activity may lead to low motor skills and poor fitness (31). These results highlight the importance of such physical activity, which enhances motor skills.
Other possible factors mediating the association between fitness and academic achievement are brain functioning and cognition. That is, better aerobic fitness has been positively associated with enhanced cerebrovascular function and increased molecular and cellular factors in the brain (32), as well as structural and functional changes in subcortical and cortical structures (33–36). Such changes in neural architecture and function enhance cognitive functions (37) and in that way may affect academic achievement.
Bidirectional association of PF and academic achievement
Our results also show that higher academic achievement at T1 predicted better motor skills during the next year. Although motor fitness did not systematically predict academic achievement or vice versa, the results suggest that a positive bidirectional loop may exist between motor fitness and academic achievement, with better academic achievement predicting better motor fitness and better motor fitness predicting better academic achievement. Previous studies have shown that motor skills are not fully developed until adolescence; likewise, complex cognitive functions, especially executive functions important for learning and academic success, continue to develop throughout childhood and adolescence (38–40). In addition, motor development and cognitive development are closely interrelated (38,40), which may explain the close relationship between motor fitness and academic achievement.
In a related study, Aaltonen et al. (41) indicated that better academic performance in adolescence modestly predicted more frequent leisure-time physical activity in late adolescence and young adulthood. According to neuroselection hypothesis, intelligence enhances individuals’ ability to make better choices related to physical health (42). Furthermore, adolescence is a period of the life span characterized by the rapid development of life management skills, including physical, behavioral, and cognitive skills, needed in every life (43). Better cognitive ability and higher-level of life management skills may drive the motivation to succeed in both academics and PF tests, and therefore explain the association of physical health and academic success. In conclusion, it is possible that the associations of PF and activity with academic performance is bidirectional.
Strengths and limitations
This study contributes to the current paucity of research in the literature examining the longitudinal association of aerobic fitness, muscular fitness, and motor skills with academic achievement in adolescence. This study has several strengths in that we used a large and representative study sample, a large range of PF components were assessed, several important confounding factors were considered, and we used a comprehensive analytical approach that utilized structural equation modeling. Further, this study is the first study showing the dependent predictive role of the motor skills and PF in association with academic performance. The major limitation herein was that academic achievement scores were based on teacher ratings. However, to counter potential biases of individual teacher ratings, class and school were also considered in the analyses. There remains a need for intervention studies to confirm these results.
In this study, the changes in both aerobic and muscular fitness were positively associated with change in academic achievement during adolescence, whereas the change in motor skills had only borderline significant association with the change in academic achievement. However, better motor skills, although not systematically, independently predicted better academic achievement 1 yr later, whereas aerobic or muscular fitness did not. Further, better academic achievement predicted better motor skills, aerobic fitness, and muscular fitness. Developmental changes, both biological and behavioral, during adolescence may induce parallel and simultaneous changes in academic achievement and PF, and understanding such relationships may be important for our understanding of public health during adolescence.
This study was funded by the Academy of Finland (grant no. 273971) and the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture (grant no. OKM/92/626/2013). The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest. The results of the present study do not constitute endorsement by the American College of Sports Medicine. The authors declare that the results of the study are presented clearly, honestly, and without fabrication, falsification, or inappropriate data manipulation.
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AEROBIC FITNESS; MUSCULAR FITNESS; FUNDAMENTAL MOVEMENT SKILLS; ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE
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