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Lose Weight...Improve Your Mathematics?

In Mathematics Education, we are always looking for that "silver bullet" to end or explain our students-not-learning problems...or perhaps even an easy way out! But wait, one new solution is here!

The June (2012) issue of the esteemed journal Child Development reports that obese students scored lower on math tests than non-obese children...even after removing the effects of "factors that can influence both body size and test scores, such as family income, race, the mother's education level and job status, and both parents' expectations for the child's performance in school."

Lead researcher Sara Gable (University of Missouri-Columbia) noted: "In boys and girls alike who entered kindergarten with weight problems, we saw these differences in math performances emerge at first grade, and the poor performance persisted through fifth grade."

So, as the new "silver bullet," to improve test scores....

BUT...Rebecca London, (senior researcher at Stanford University) cautions us that the situation is much more complicated than it seems. No one knows for certain why obesity and school performance are related, or whether one directly causes the other.

As London asks, "Is it the actual state of obesity -- those extra pounds -- that are somehow influencing students' achievement, or is it something related to the obesity but not the actual pounds?"

Multiple researchers have tried to make sense of this cart/horse dilemma in many ways:

  • A study by London determined that overall fitness (body mass index (BMI) + strength + endurance) was a better predictor of academic performance than BMI alone
  • Another study revealed a stronger relationship of an adolescents' self-perception of their weight to academic performance than BMI
  • And this new study also showed that "obese students generally displayed more emotional difficulties than their non-obese counterparts, and obese girls -- but not boys -- also displayed poorer social skills. Although the results weren't clear-cut, ...these differences partly explained the obese students' lower math scores.
  • Another researcher suggests that "Feelings of sadness or loneliness or anxiety in and of themselves may get in the way of school performance...It may be more difficult to pay attention. These kids may be less likely to ask a question."
  • Robert Siegel, doctor in a pediatric obesity clinic at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, argues that "Even more insidiously, excess weight or physical inactivity might sap a child's brainpower at the cellular level, by causing inflammation and other harmful biological processes...Obesity affects virtually every organ system in the body, including the brain; it's an inflammatory state, and that may have effects on the developing mind."
So, the new "silver bullet" to improve test scores may have to wait....

Plus, the available research has been restricted to students up through age 11. What happens after that? One researcher asks "whether early interactions between obesity and school performance snowball as children age through middle school, high school, and beyond."

Excuse, me...enough on this...my dinner is calling...and real pie, not a substuted pie chart!

Source: Adapted from Amanda Gardner's "Does obesity affect school performance?" CMM Health.com, June 14, 2012