Exercise improves brain outcomes in overweight or obese children


The ActiveBrains trials associated exercise with improved intelligence and cognitive function in overweight or obese children.

Intelligence and cognitive flexibility are improved through exercise in overweight or obese children, according to a recent study.

From 1975 to 2016, overweight and obesity in children rose from 4% to 18%. This has led to health concerns, as overweight and obesity has been associated with poorer cognitive and brain health among pediatric patients. As a potential countermeasure to these adverse events, researchers studied the effects of exercise on cognitive function.

The ActiveBrains trial recruited children aged 8 to 11 years with overweight or obesity, mainly from 2 pediatric units in hospitals in Granada, Spain. Data was collected from 109 consenting patients from November 21, 2014, to June 30, 2016.

At the start of the trial, children were divided into a control group and exercise group. Both groups were taught about the benefits of healthy nutrition and exercise, but the control group continued with their normal routines. Supervised exercise sessions were offered to the exercise group, who were required to attend at least 3 sessions a week. Sessions consisted of 60 minutes of aerobic exercises and 30 minutes of resistance exercises.

Crystallized intelligence, fluid intelligence, total intelligence, cognitive flexibility, inhibition, working memory, and academic performance were analyzed in participants before and after sessions begun. Significant improvements were seen in crystallized intelligence, total intelligence, and cognitive flexibility in the exercise group after continuous sessions, while minor improvements were seen in academic performance.

Inhibition, working memory, hippocampal volume, and other brain magnetic resonance imaging outcomes did not see changes after participation in the exercise program. Cardiorespiratory fitness performance improved in the exercise group, which mediated effects such as crystallized intelligence, problem solving, and total academic performance. 

Changes were consistent throughout the trial, though greater effects in intelligence were seen among male participants compared to female participants. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used to examine how the exercise program affected brain volume, but no significant effects were seen on any MRI outcomes.

The results from this study support those of prior studies, which indicated that exercise has positive effects on intelligence and cognitive flexibility. However, this study provides the most concrete data because of a larger sample size and less limited study design. This has made the ActiveBrains study the strongest source of evidence on the positive effects of exercise in overweight or obese pediatric patients.


Ortega FB, Mora-Gonzalez J, Cadenas-Sanchez C, Esteban-Cornejo I, Migueles JH, Solis-Urra P, et al. Effects of an exercise program on brain health outcomes for children with overweight or obesity: the ActiveBrains randomized clinical trial. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(8):e2227893. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.27893

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