Fact-Checking Vivek Ramaswamy on Fitness and Academics

Last month, Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy tweeted (X-ed?), “The College Board should add a physical fitness section to the SAT, instead of just math and reading sections. This could mirror the “Presidential Fitness Test” – consisting of a 1-mile run, pull-ups, sit-ups, shuttle run, etc… This is a pro-merit solution that rewards diverse talents: it’s a fact that those who perform well on math & reading tests tend to perform more poorly on the 1-mile run, and vice versa. This would also help address a growing mental health crisis in our country: physical fitness correlates directly with lower rates of depression, anxiety, and drug use.” (my italics)

While I agree that physical fitness is a vital skill with myriad non-physical benefits, it is not the case that more physically fit students perform worse academically and vice versa. In fact, as I have explained in several previous pieces, the opposite is true. Research shows that more physically fit children perform better on learning and memory tests and that increased physical activity is linked to long-term improvements in academic performance. And as Dr. John Ratey explained in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, a Naperville, Illinois, school district became one of the top-performing academic districts in the state after redesigning its physical education program to focus on fitness.

Furthermore, a 2010 study directly contradicts Ramaswamy’s claim about test performance and one-mile run time. Researchers compared the scores of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders on California’s standardized math, reading and language tests to their times on a one-mile run/walk. Students who met or exceeded state fitness standards for the one-mile run/walk had higher average test scores than students who fell below the standards. On average, academic test scores dropped more than one point for each extra minute it took the students to complete the one-mile test. In other words, students who performed worse on the one-mile test performed worse academically, and students who performed better on the one-mile test performed better academically.

This research demonstrates the importance of physical fitness in a well-rounded education program. Ramaswamy is right to point to fitness as a vital skill that improves mental and emotional health, but the evidence doesn’t support his claim of either-or skill sets. Schools shouldn’t be searching for fitness markers as alternatives to academic performance. Rather, physical education should be a part of school curriculums because fitness improves physical wellness, academic performance and mental health.