Importance of Physical Activity for Children’s Brain Health

activity3Past research has shown a correlation between physical activity and cognitive performance in children. For example, there are studies showing that children’s scores on math and reading tests go up if they go for a walk before they take a test; also that there is a correlation between children’s aerobic fitness and brain structure.

But a recent study—the most ambitious study ever conducted of physical activity and cognitive performance in children—now underscores the importance of physical activity for children’s brain health and development, especially in terms of the particular thinking skills that most affect academic performance.

The new study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recruited a group of 8- and 9-year-old public elementary school students for an after-school exercise program. Children in this age group typically experience a leap in their brain’s so-called executive functioning, which is the ability to impose order on your thinking. Executive functions help to control mental multitasking, maintain concentration, and inhibit inappropriate responses to mental stimuli. Children whose executive functions are stunted tend to have academic problems in school, while children with well-developed executive functions usually do well.

The goal of the study was to determine whether regular exercise would improve children’s executive-function skills, providing a boost to their normal mental development.

Over the course of a full school year, researchers studied two groups of 110 children each. The first group participated in two-hour supervised, organized play time after school every day at the university, wearing heart rate monitors and pedometers. The second group continued with their normal lives and served as the control group.

Results showed that, in addition to being more physically fit, the children in the exercise group displayed substantial improvements in their scores on each of the computer-based tests of executive function. They were better at “attentional inhibition,” which is the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on the task at hand, than they had been at the start of the program, and had heightened abilities to toggle between cognitive tasks.

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