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Adolescent Physical Activity and Education


As the focus on academic performance has increased in recent years due to national and state policies such as the Every Student Succeeds Act, instructional time for subjects such as mathematics and language arts has increased at the expense of physical activity (PA) opportunities in schools such as physical education (PE) classes. A potential consequence of increased instruction time in these curricular subjects is a decrease in daily PA, which may adversely impact both youth health and education.

This dissertation is composed of three studies focused on the relationship between adolescent PA and educational outcomes using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a nationally representative sample of adolescents surveyed four times starting in 1994 when they were between grades 7-12 until 2008 when they were between the ages of 24-32. The wealth of data provided in the Add Health study allows for the use of statistical methods such as instrumental variables and individual fixed effects that provide more informative estimates than typical correlational approaches. The first study uses an instrumental variables strategy to estimate the impact of adolescent PA on educational attainment, while the second and third studies use instrumental variables and individual fixed effects adjustments, respectively, to evaluate potential school-based policy levers that can increase adolescent PA.

Results from the first study using instrumental variables demonstrate that a standard deviation increase in PA increases years of completed schooling by 1.54 years, and about a third of this relationship is mediated by improvements in cognition. Results from the second study using instrumental variables show an additional hour of weekly PE increases years of completed schooling by .30 years. The final study uses individual fixed effects to find varsity sports participation to be positively associated with increases in educational performance for certain academic subjects but these estimates vary by gender.

Reductions in PA may be detrimental to the academic success of adolescents. Results from this dissertation suggest increases in PA can improve the academic success of youth, which could be an additional benefit above and beyond the health benefits of PA.

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