Attendance improves when schools emphasize students’ physical fitness

Attendance Institute
Posted Jan 19, 2018

Elementary school students who are physically active for at least 60 minutes each day are not only more likely to be healthier, but are also more likely to regularly attend school, according to a recent study.

According to the Minnesota departments of health and education, students who met national recommendations for aerobic fitness were 6 percent more likely to consistently attend school–and that small increase appears to have played a role in improving their academic performance.

The report also showed that in addition to better attendance, children who were more physically active were 27 percent more likely to be proficient in math, and 24 percent more likely to be proficient in reading.

“It’s clear from this report that active kids are active learners,” Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “Providing a well-rounded education that includes movement and physical education is essential to a child’s success in the classroom.”

Part of that success can likely be attributed to the fact that students included in the study who met national recommendations for aerobic fitness were 250 percent more likely to have a healthy weight.

Chronic obesity among children has been tied to health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, joint problems and asthma. According to the University of California, San Diego’s school of health, obese children and adolescents also “have a greater risk of social and psychological problems, such as discrimination and poor self-esteem.” Issues related to asthma as well as bullying and poor self-esteem have all been tied to poor school attendance.

Research has long demonstrated a positive link between overall fitness and academic performance, but as schools faced pressure to increase test scores in past years, recess time and physical education programs were often reduced.

With districts expected to provide a more well-rounded education under the Every Student Succeeds Act, however, officials at the school- and state-level have begun working to elevate P.E. standards that emphasize high intensity activities that not only benefits overall fitness but also classroom behavior.

States including Vermont, Michigan and Connecticut have even included physical education or student fitness in their federal accountability plans.

In Minnesota, 14 elementary schools committed to implementing at least two strategies through the Active Schools Minnesota initiative that increased students’ time in physical activity during and outside the school day between 2014 and 2016 as part of the study. The Minnesota Department of Health worked with the State Department of Education on implementing and evaluating the initiative.

The schools involved received $10,000 to boost physical activity programs over a three-year period.

While researchers noted that many used some of the money to enhancing their existing physical education programs, most also added movement breaks in the classroom, as well as group or individual before- and after-school activities.

Tim Lutz, Kelliher Public School District superintendent, told the Star Tribune that each of the participating elementary schools in his district chose their own set of activities. Some schools offered before- and after-school activities including running and yoga, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter months. Others developed “active classrooms,” wherein students take two 10-minute breaks each day to move around.

Lutz said that since implementing these changes, the schools have seen an improvement in test scores, especially in reading, as well as fewer disciplinary referrals and increased student attendance.

According to Ed Ehlinger, the state’s health commissioner, schools that implemented the Active Schools Minnesota have provided a lot of positive feedback for state officials, especially in regard to how beneficial increased physical activity has been for student outcomes.

“We know how important physical activity is to the overall health of our youth, and this study not only reinforced that point but also brought to the surface how important movement is to the academic success of our students,” Ehlinger said in a statement.

Teacher feedback for the health department included reports that students enjoyed being active and that educators observed positive behavioral changes in the classroom.

Under a state law passed in 2016, all Minnesota schools will begin incorporating grade-level standards and benchmarks for physical education. State officials are currently drafting statewide standards.