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Motor competence, activity, fitness, and body composition

This is an excerpt from Life Span Motor Development 7th Edition With Web Study Guide-Loose-Leaf Edition.

Although a few publications before 2008 spoke to the interrelationships among motor competence, activity, fitness, and body composition, it was an article published by leaders in the field of motor development, Stodden, Goodway, Langendorfer, Roberton, Rudisill, Garcia, and Garcia (2008), that gave impetus to the study of these interrelated factors. Stodden et al. made a case for the importance of proficiency in common foundational movement skills, generally referred to as motor competence, to levels of physical activity, health-related fitness, and weight status. Their conceptual model of the relationships among these factors accounts for the strengthening of relationships through early childhood, middle childhood, and late childhood. Further, the model illustrates that those lacking an adequate foundation in motor competency might not engage in sufficient levels of physical activity to attain an adequate level of health-related fitness and optimal body composition and weight status. This would put such individuals at greater risk of obesity and low fitness levels over the life span.


If motor competence is related to levels of physical activity and fitness, this has important implications for programming in childhood and adolescence. For example, if you are concerned about the trends toward increased overweight and declining fitness levels in youths, would the answer be to focus physical education programs solely on fitness activities, or would there be value in focusing on developing both motor competence and fitness?


Many structured and unstructured games, sports, and activities, including dance, build on the fundamental motor skills. For example, baseball requires running, throwing, catching, and striking. A dance might require walking, running, and hopping as well as balance and body awareness. Being competent in fundamental skills permits students to become proficient movers during physical activity. As we mentioned earlier, proficient movers are efficient and can sustain vigorous activity. Think of two tennis players. If they are proficient in moving and striking, they can play long rallies and therefore expend high levels of energy. Alternatively, if they are not proficient, the action might stop after one or two strikes so that errant balls can be retrieved. Exercise and concomitant energy expenditure are limited.


Children do not automatically acquire skill proficiency. Instructional programs and opportunities for practice are vital for achieving motor competence. Obviously, it is important for both researchers and practitioners to know if there is a link between motor competence and physical activity level, health-related fitness status, and weight status. Further, individuals who achieve motor competence when young are positioned to engage in enjoyable and vigorous physical activity for a lifetime.


Motor Competence and Health-Related Fitness

What about the association between motor competency and health-related fitness? Barnett, van Beurden, Morgan, Brooks, and Beard (2008) measured youths approximately 8 to 12 years old on fundamental motor skills and a shuttle run-type cardiorespiratory test. They then repeated the tests 5 years later. They found that some of the fundamental motor skills—interestingly, the object-control skills rather than locomotor skills—predicted adolescent cardiorespiratory fitness. This was true for both boys and girls. Perhaps the youths with good object-control skills were more likely to participate in physical activities. Hands (2008) took a similar approach but included children who were classified as either low or high in motor competence. She also repeated her measures every year for 5 years. The two competency groups were different in all measures (the high competency group was better) except body mass index, for which no difference was found. The differences remained over the 5 years but widened on the shuttle run test for aerobic fitness and narrowed on a sprint run and a balance test. The children with low motor competency improved over the 5 years but never caught up with the children with high competency. Better motor skill was associated with greater cardiorespiratory endurance.


Cattuzzo et al. (2016) reviewed 44 cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of children and adolescents published between 1990 and 2013. A positive association between motor competency and cardiorespiratory fitness was found in 12 of 12 studies and between motor competence and musculoskeletal fitness in 7 of 11 studies. Higher motor competence was associated with lower weight status in 27 of 33 studies. The reviewers concluded that motor competence was directly and indirectly associated with health-related fitness.


Very little research exists on the motor competence of adults and its impact on fitness, but Stodden, Langendorfer, and Roberton (2009) did examine this relationship in young adults 18 to 25 years old. They assessed motor competence on maximum kicking and throwing speed and maximum jumping distance. They also recorded percent body fat, grip strength, and maximum leg press as well as performance on the 12-minute run/walk and the curl-up test. The motor competency scores were highly related to the variability in fitness among the adults, suggesting that motor competence is important for attaining and maintaining fitness in adulthood.


KEY POINT Higher motor competence is associated with better cardiorespiratory fitness, greater strength, and healthier weight status.