Physical inactivity in children may not only lead to known physical health risks such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and coronary artery disease, but can also lend to poor motor skills that have detrimental effects on cognitive function and academic performance, according to a recent study.

The preschool years in a child’s life are known as the “Golden Age” of motor development. During the ages of 3 and 5, children learn to develop important skills like running, jumping, throwing, and catching, which help them learn more complicated muscular movements. According to, experiencing motor difficulties can have a significant effect on classroom performance and motivation in school. A child’s early motor function is related to the process of language acquirement, basic academic skills, and overall academic performance.

In the study, Finnish researchers investigated the relationships between cardiovascular fitness and motor performance and reading and math skills in 174 Finnish children. The researchers compared cardiovascular fitness and motor performance in the first grade to reading and math skills in grades one to three as part of The Physical Activity and Nutrition (PANIC) Study at the University of Eastern Finland and The First Steps Study at the University of Jyväskylä.

The Finnish PANIC study mainly focuses on the effects of increased physical activity, improved diet, and genetic factors on health and well-being among children and adolescents, reports Psychology Today.

In the study, the researchers found children who performed poorly in agility, speed, and manual skill tests had poor motor performance in the first grade and had lower reading and math scores in grades one to three compared to children with better motor skills performance. Children in the lowest motor performance third had poorer reading and math test scores than children in the other thirds. The Finnish researchers did not find an association between cardiovascular fitness and academic skills.

According to the news release, the findings of the study highlight the importance of motor performance and movement skills over cardiovascular fitness for children’s school success. However, previous studies have shown a child’s motor skills are enhanced through engagement in physical activity, which has been found to have a significant impact on academic performance.

In a different study published in the Journal of School Health, researchers examined the relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement in a group of students enrolled in grades four through eight during the 2004 and 2005 school year. Students were found to perform better in both reading and math when they were also involved in ongoing athletic activities, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. The findings of this study and others support the notion that kids who are physically active do enhance their academic performance.

The rise of poor motor function in childhood is found to be attributed to the “No Child Left Behind” approach — an emphasis on the importance of test scores — says Christopher Bergland of Psychology Today. Bergland believes teachers are focusing less on enhancing students’ motor skills by just focusing on how they can score high on exams. This teaching approach can hurt rather than help a child’s cognitive abilities and academic performance.

Overall, poor motor function in childhood may serve as an important factor in predicting poor academic performance in childhood and adolescence.

To learn more about how to enhance a child’s motor skills, click here.