Physical Activity, Cognition and Academic Performance: An Analysis of Mediating and Confounding Relationships in Primary School Children
McPherson, A; Mackay, L; Kunkel, J; Duncan, S
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Background: Exploring the relationship between physical activity, cognition and academic performance in children is an important but developing academic field. One of the key tasks for researchers is explaining how the three factors interact. The aim of this study was to develop and test a conceptual model that explains the associations among physical activity, cognition, academic performance, and potential mediating factors in children. Methods: Data were sourced from 601 New Zealand children aged 6-11 years. Weekday home, weekday school, and weekend physical activity was measured by multiple pedometer step readings, cognition by four measures from the CNS Vital Signs assessment, and academic performance from the New Zealand Ministry of Education electronic Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning (e-asTTle) reading and maths scores. A Structured Equation Modelling approach was used to test two models of variable relationships. The first model analysed the physical activity-academic performance relationship, and the second model added cognition to determine the mediating effect of cognition on the physical activity-academic performance association. Multigroup analysis was used to consider confounding effects of gender, ethnicity and school socioeconomic decile status. Results: The initial model identified a significant association between physical activity and academic performance (r = 0.225). This direct association weakened (r = 0.121) when cognition was included in the model, demonstrating a partial mediating effect of cognition. While cognition was strongly associated with academic performance (r = 0.750), physical activity was also associated with cognition (r = 0.138). Subgroups showed similar patterns to the full sample, but the smaller group sizes limited the strength of the conclusions. Conclusions: This cross-sectional study demonstrates a direct association between physical activity and academic performance. Furthermore, and importantly, this study shows the relationship between physical activity and academic performance is supported by an independent relationship between physical activity and cognition. Larger sample sizes are needed to investigate confounding factors of gender, age, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. Future longitudinal analyses could investigate whether increases in physical activity can improve both cognition and academic performance.