According to a study conducted by the University of Eastern Finland, it has been found that adolescents who participate in active school transport and engage in leisure-time physical activities tend to perform better in secondary school compared to their inactive peers. The research, published in the prestigious European Journal of Public Health, also indicates that even moderate doses of regular leisure-time physical activity are linked to reduced odds of experiencing school burnout.

The relationship between physical activity and academic achievement is intricate and has been the subject of prior research. Previous studies have highlighted the positive impact of school-based physical activity, such as physical education, on classroom performance, particularly in subjects like mathematics. However, there has been a lack of investigation into the connection between active school transport and educational outcomes. Additionally, most of the previous evidence concerning physical activity and school wellbeing has primarily focused on university-level students.

In a recent study involving more than 34,000 adolescents, researchers made noteworthy observations. They found that engaging in active school transport was linked to higher chances of perceiving oneself as academically proficient and possessing better self-reported competency in academic skills. Moreover, the association was even more robust for leisure-time physical activities of moderate to vigorous intensity. Consistent with previous research, the connection between leisure-time physical activity and mathematical skills was particularly prominent.

The researchers were especially intrigued by the results concerning active school transport, as there is growing interest in understanding the health benefits of walking or cycling as a means of travel. They hypothesize that being physically active before school might enhance concentration in the classroom, potentially explaining the positive outcomes observed. However, it's important to note that due to the study's cross-sectional design, it cannot establish causality. Juuso Jussila, a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Eastern Finland, shared these insights from the study.

The findings regarding leisure-time physical activity and perceived academic achievement did not come as a surprise, as they align with support from prospective and intervention studies. Although not all explanatory mechanisms are fully understood, it is believed that improved coordination and perceptual-motor skills, which are often developed in various team sports, may partially account for these positive effects. Additionally, leisure-time physical activity tends to be more intense compared to active school transport, leading to increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor in our circulation, which in turn contributes to improvements in cognitive performance.

Moreover, leisure-time physical activity showed an inverse relationship with school burnout. Even as little as 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity per week was associated with a significant 24% reduction in the odds of experiencing school burnout. Furthermore, adolescents engaging in 4 to 6 hours of leisure-time physical activity per week had a remarkable 46% lower likelihood of school burnout when compared to their physically inactive peers. Both leisure-time physical activity and active school transport were also found to be positively associated with school enjoyment.

"This study represents, to the best of my knowledge, the first large-scale investigation into the link between physical activity and school burnout among adolescents," summarizes Jussila. He emphasizes that engaging in leisure-time physical activity can serve as an effective means of disconnecting from school-related stress and coursework. By promoting an increase in leisure-time physical activity among young individuals, substantial benefits in both learning and overall wellbeing can be achieved.

The research was conducted in collaboration with the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare and the nationwide School Health Promotion study. Jussila is associated with the Climate Nudge project, which receives funding from the Strategic Research Council at the Academy of Finland.

Journal Link: European Journal of Public Health