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The Impact of Athletics on Academics


The obesity epidemic has generated notable interest, as reflected in the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative, which focuses on providing information so “…families, schools and communities [can] help kids be more active, eat better and grow up healthy.
The Let’s Move in School project developed by the national physical education professional organization, National Association for Sport and Physical Education/American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (NASPE/AAHPERD) is similar, yet limited in scope to school-based activities.

Both of the Let’s Move initiatives are designed to increase students’ physical activity (PA) opportunities. One issue that typically arises during the “let’s increase physical education/PA time” discussion is what curricular content to minimize so this can happen. Proponents of the “core” subjects have used the scare tactic that students’ academic test scores will decrease if classroom time is reduced to maintain or add physical education (PE)/PA to the curriculum.

While this misdirection was initially effective, empirical research has refuted that assertion, as shown in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC; 2010) summary of 50 studies addressed in 43 research articles spanning nearly 20 years. The evidence supports the link between PA and academics as positive and one that benefits students in myriad ways beyond academics.

The articles included in the CDC (2010) review were sorted by PA context (i.e., physical education, recess, classroom-based physical activity, and extracurricular physical activities), and then by type of academic performance outcome: 1) academic achievement (e.g., grades, test scores); 2) academic behavior (e.g., on-task behavior, attendance); and 3) cognitive skills and attitudes (e.g., attention/concentration, memory, mood). The results illuminate the value and unique benefits garnered from PE and those from extracurricular activities including intramural and interscholastic sport activities (full report).

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans document recommends that children ages six-17 participate in at least 60 minutes of PA daily. To enable students to meet these levels of physical activity, NASPE recommends that all pre-K through grade 12 schools implement a comprehensive school PA program, which includes quality PE; PA before, during, and after school, including recess and other physical activity breaks; extracurricular, noncompetitive PA clubs; interscholastic sports; and walk- and bike-to-school initiatives (NASPE, 2008).

Similarly, the CDC (2010, p. 33) reported that:  The evidence in this review suggests that superintendents, principals, and athletic directors can develop or continue school-based sports programs, (e.g., intramurals or physical activity clubs and interscholastic sports programs), without concern that participation in such activities would have negative associations with academic performance.

One of the questions addressed by the CDC summary (2010) was, “Is participation in extracurricular physical activities at school related to academic performance?” The finding was that, yes, all of the 19 studies that addressed this issue found oneor more positive outcomes. Importantly, GPA and extracurricular PA were positively associated 12 of the 22 times they were measured. Even more impressively, two studies examined the association between extracurricular activities and dropout rates and found that participation was linked to decreased high school dropout rates.

Asking athletes to move is like asking them to breathe; it is second nature. The idea that athletics may not foster academic performance, or even inhibit it, seems preposterous to those of us who were involved in athletics during our K-16 educational experiences. While the literature is replete with empirical evidence that increasing PA in school-based settings has a neutral to positive impact on students’ academic performance, there is not as much information about the sports/academics connection.  Given this reality, the aforementioned connections among athletics/sports/PA participation and academic outcomes are affirming.

Another recent publication supports the idea that participation in organized sports experiences has the unintended benefit of improving academic-related outcomes. In the journal Addiction, Terry-McElrath and O’Malley (2011) reported longitudinal findings from 11,741 high school graduates from class years 1986-2001 who completed up to four follow-up surveys through age 26. Overall, they reported that students who participated more often in team sports or general exercise were less likely to use cigarettes, marijuana, and other illicit drugs than other high school seniors. Further, those who increased their PA and sports participation throughout early adulthood also reported smoking and using drugs less often over time. This empirical evidence supports the anecdotal belief that sports can have far-reaching benefits, including developing a stronger sense of self, fostering educational aspirations, maintaining interest in class, encouraging homework completion, and reducing dropout rates (CDC, 2010).

While research-based support for athletics-specific outcomes is slower in development than that for other school-based subjects like PE, it appears clear that diverse forms of movement experiences are valuable for youth. Given the existing literature support cited above, it seems reasonable to stand behind the idea that participation in regular PA, whether in PE, extracurricular activities including athletics, or community-based programs, yields positive outcomes for participants. That said, school staff can rest assured that providing a variety of quality movement experiences to their students will benefit them physically, emotionally, socially and yes, academically.

For a list of references used in this article, please contact editing@seenmagazine.us.

Susan F. Ayers, PhD is an Associate Professor of Physical Education Teacher Education at Western Michigan University. Her areas of expertise include health-related fitness education and measurement and evaluation. Suzan was an NCAA Division I athlete, coached briefly and has taught K-16 for 21 years.  This article appeared in Et Cetera, which is an online blog of AAHPERD.


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