Healthy lifestyle and learning – the evidence on the associations of physical activity, diet, and obesity with cognitive functions and academic performance

Presentation held at the 11th International Seminar for Physical Education Teachers – Getting Active, Boosting Well-Being. Vierumäki, Finland

“The running man” has been the gold standard phenotype of homo sapiens for thousands of years. Physical activity was an essential and universal part of our lifestyle no more than 100 years ago, but the need for physical work has decreased dramatically since then.  Changes in lifestyle have led to physical inactivity and the concomitant development of health problems causing economic losses. Less than half of children and adolescents undertake the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. The evidence also suggests that “the running man” is much more an exception than a rule among the children and adolescents of this millennium.  Furthermore, recent evidence suggesting that children´s dietary patterns typically include a high intake of saturated fat and sucrose, a high consumption of fast foods, and a low consumption of vegetables is alarming. Finally, the   prevalence   of   overweight   and   obesity   has increased substantially during the past three decades.

Physical inactivity, poor nutrition, and overweight may impair the rapidly developing brain and cognitive functions and unhealthy lifestyle may also deteriorate children’s academic achievement. Sedentary lifestyle, poor diet quality, and adiposity may, therefore, have far-reaching effects on children ́s lives in later years. If physical inactivity and poor diet quality and the concomitant development of health problems including overweight and obesity are associated with less than optimal cognitive function and academic development, they may also be associated with poorer education levels leading to lower socioeconomic attainment and various physical and psychosocial problems.