Can sports make kids smarter?

Was Thomas Jefferson on to something when he quipped, “A strong body makes the mind strong?” It appears so, according to a study of nearly 5,000 British teens. Researchers tracked physical activity and standardized test performance at ages 11, 13 and 16. Overall, kids who were more active achieved higher test scores in English, math and science.

Interestingly, as parents, educators and policymakers lament the lack of women in science, the results indicated a strong link between physical activity and science scores for girls.

The researchers, whose study was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, aren’t sure why kids who spent more time sweating outperformed their couch potato peers on academic measures, but suggested that physical activity might increase time on task and curb problem behavior in the classroom.

Kathryn Ackerman, MD, MPH, co-director of the Female Athlete Program at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Sports Medicine Division, adds another possibility: The structure of sports carries over into other aspects of kids’ lives. Athletic discipline makes for academic discipline.

Many schools also hold student athletes accountable with grade-point average or attendance requirements, so in many cases a desire to remain on the field requires a certain amount of time hitting the books.

The link between physical activity and science scores for girls puzzled the researchers, who acknowledged the result may reflect a chance finding. Another possibility is that physical activity may affect girls’ and boys’ brains differently, according to the researchers. Ackerman adds that it’s possible that the added self-confidence girls experience with sports activity carries into the science classroom as well, where girls have historically been less encouraged to excel than boys.

An open field

Kathryn Ackerman, MD

The researchers noted a physical activity “dose effect,” with kids who engaged in more moderate-to-vigorous activity performing better on standardized tests. Getting the heart rate up is key, says Ackerman.

But how kids rev their cardiovascular engines is an open field. Some kids may thrive in school-organized team sports. However, late bloomers who didn’t begin organized sports at a young age may be reluctant to join a new team in middle school.

These kids need not shy away from team play, says Ackerman. “There are plenty of activities that kids can excel at even if they start later.” Other youth prefer family-based activities like skiing, biking or classes at the local YMCA.

In fact, casual multi-sport athletes may be on to a healthier game plan. Forcing kids into specialized sports too early can backfire with early burnout or lead to injury.

“The model we grew up with—more unstructured, fun and diverse free play—may be healthier for kids and saner for families,” continues Ackerman. “Giving kids a chance to try an array of activities allows them to develop different skills, gain confidence and stay motivated. While some children eventually may want to specialize to excel at one sport, others may enjoy the opportunity to participate in multiple activities throughout their lives.”

Although it’s never too late for a child (or parent) to try a new activity, safety should come first. Ackerman emphasizes injury prevention with cross-training that focuses on flexibility, muscle balance and core strength. Overall, it’s good to have a variety of physical challenges and to check in with a provider who can assess injury risk, she says.

To learn more about preventing athletic injuries, click here to access our series of sport-specific guides.