The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Youth Physical Activity As a Predictor of School Self-Esteem and Academic Achievement

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 12:15 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 002B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Christopher Wretman, MSW, Research Assistant, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Natasha Bowen, PhD, Associate Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC

Physical activity can promote youth achievement, but the underlying mechanisms behind this relationship are not fully understood. Physical activity may affect achievement directly through a combination of physiological processes (Bailey, 2006), as well as indirectly through improved perceptions of self (Hassmen, 2000). Using a self-determination framework, it had been postulated that youth who participate in physical activity exhibit enhanced self-perceptions that in turn enhance intrinsic motivation to succeed at school (Standage, Duda, & Ntoumanis, 2003). The current study builds on existing research by examining relationships among physical activity, self-esteem, and academic achievement in youth. Sophisticated latent variable modeling procedures appropriate for ordinal, clustered data were used. It was hypothesized that physical activity would be directly and indirectly related to academic achievement through both general and weight-specific self-perceptions.


Sample: Data were collected in 2008 from 3,196 secondary students in 14 schools in one county in a southeastern state. Students were 6th to 9th graders and had a mean age of 14.9 years. About half (51%) of the sample was male, and 83.7% was White.

Measures: Data were collected with the School Success Profile, a well-validated, self-report social environmental assessment (Bowen, Rose, & Bowen, 2005) for secondary students. Each of the analyzed constructs was modeled as a latent variable measured by two or more observed variables. Physical activity was measured by exercise frequency and school sports participation. Academic achievement was measured with questions about typical grades, number of grades repeated, and academic performance relative to peers. Five items adapted from Rosenberg’s self-esteem scale were used to assess self-esteem. Six items assessed self-perceptions of body weight. Items included “I weigh too much,” and “I worry a lot about my weight.” Gender and race/ethnicity were included as control variables.

Analysis: Mplus 7 was used to test latent variable models using Weighted Least Squares estimation (WLSMV) with a polychoric correlation matrix of the ordinal observed variables and a correction for the clustering of children in schools. Full information Maximum Likelihood allowed the inclusion of cases with missing values.

Results: The final model had excellent fit (RMSEA = .035, CI .032 to .038; CFI = .986; TLI = .983). Chi square was 544.39 (112), p = .000. Adolescents’ level of physical activity had direct (standardized coefficient .36) positive effects on achievement as well as indirect effects. One indirect path was through self-esteem, and another was through self-perceptions of weight and then self-esteem. Self-perceptions of weight had only an indirect effect on academics through self-esteem. Standardized path coefficients from physical activity to self-esteem and weight perceptions were .35 and .24, respectively. The path coefficient from self-esteem to achievement was .16.


Physical activity demonstrated both direct and indirect effects on academic performance among middle and high school students. General and domain-specific self-perceptions mediated the effects of physical activity on grades. Limitations include a largely white sample, the use of all self-report measures, and cross-sectional data. Implications for social work practice include advocating for school-based physical activity opportunities for all students.