In addition to helping kids avoid obesity and type 2 diabetes, exercise also could make them smarter, boosting their attention spans and thinking abilities.
Today’s children often plop down in front of the TV or play video games for hours when they come from school. Add in time for homework and dinner and there’s little opportunity to play outside with friends — kicking balls, shooting baskets, or participating in other active fun for an hour or two like past generations did. Schools across the U.S. have cut back or eliminated PE in recent years, too. So, unless your child participates in afterschool sports, he or she may not get much exercise during the day.
This lack of regular physical activity has played a role in the rising epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes among American school-age children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And now there’s also abundant evidence sedentary kids have more difficulty learning and achieving academic success, compared to kids who get regular exercise. The CDC notes studies have shown a strong association between exercise and a boost in kids’ thinking skills — including the ability to stay on task, concentrate, be attentive in class, and learn.
One explanation is that physical activity reduces feeling of anxiety and depression that can hamper kids’ ability to pay attention. But being more physically fit also appears to directly influence the ability to learn, too, because it impacts the brain.
To document a cause-and-effect between regular exercise and changes in kids’ brains, a research team from the University of Illinois worked with school administrators at several public schools to recruit 7-, 8- and 9-year-old children for an after-school exercise program.
For the study, half of the 221 youngsters were assigned to a wait list for the exercise program — they served as controls while the other kids participated in the activity program, called FITKids, for nine months. All the children underwent brain imaging and cognitive testing before and after the exercise intervention.
The FITKids wore heart-rate monitors and pedometers to track their physical progress as they participated in short bouts of exercise combined with rest periods. Most of the children averaged about 4,500 steps during their two-hour exercise program, and their heart rates showed they were getting a moderate to vigorous workout.
At the end of the nine-month study, the FITKids’ fitness levels had increased six percent, while the fitness level of the youngsters on the wait list for the program had increased less than one percent. And when the children’s cognitive abilities were tested at the close of the study and compared to their initial scores, the results, published in the Pediatrics, showed youngsters in the exercise group had substantial improvements in several areas if their thinking abilities.
There were increases in attentional inhibition, a measure of how well they could focus on a task in front of them by blocking out distractions. The youngsters who had exercised regularly also measured a large improvement in cognitive flexibility — the ability to switch between intellectual tasks while maintaining accuracy and speed.
"Kids in the intervention group improved two-fold compared to the wait-list kids in terms of their accuracy on cognitive tasks," said study leader Charles Hillman, PhD, a University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor. "And we found widespread changes in brain function which relate to the allocation of attention during cognitive tasks and cognitive processing speed. These changes were significantly greater than those exhibited by the wait-list kids.”
Research headed by Augusta University pediatrics professor Catherine L. Davis, PhD, published in Health Psychology, also used MRIs to study the brain activity of 171 overweight, sedentary children between the ages of 7 and 11. Half the youngsters in the study served as a control group, continuing to get little or no exercise, while the other kids exercised regularly for either 20 or 40 minutes over the course of three months.
At the end of the study, the researchers repeated the MRIs and found the youngsters who had exercised regularly had increased activity in parts of their brains involved with executive function — the ability to concentrate, multitask, and impose order on thinking, skills that help kids learn and achieve in school and in life.
The CDC’s Youth Physical Activities Guidelines Toolkit offers tips to help families with children follow the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which recommends an hour or more of physical activity each day for youngsters between the ages of 6 and 17.
February 27, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN