How exercise helps children think better


Physical activity significantly affects cognitive function in prepubertal children, according to a new study.


Physical activity significantly affects executive control functions in the brains of prepubertal children, according to a new study, enhancing cognitive skills crucial to academic performance. Those skills include resisting distractions to maintain focus (inhibition), retaining and manipulating information (working memory), and multitasking (cognitive flexibility).

The randomized controlled trial enrolled 221 children aged 8 and 9 yearsand assigned them to a 9-month after-school physical activity program (Fitness Improves Thinking in Kids [FITKids]) or a wait-list control group. The study recruited 8- and 9-year-olds because children experience rapid growth of executive control at these ages, and investigators wanted to see whether regular exercise would enhance normal development.  

After baseline physical and cognitive testing, the children in the exercise group spent 2 hours after school each day participating in moderate to vigorous physical activities focused on improving aerobic endurance and basic motor skills while wearing heart monitors and pedometers. They exercised for about 70 minutes of the 2 hours, with periodic snack and rest times. At the end of the program, both groups underwent repeat physical and cognitive testing.

Not surprisingly, the exercise group ended up more physically fit than before they participated in the program whereas the control group didn’t. They also markedly increased their scores on tests of brain and behavioral measures of executive control, specifically inhibition and cognitive flexibility, but not nonexecutive aspects of cognition.  

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The children with better attendance at the fitness program showed greater increases in their cognitive scores.

The control group’s cognitive scores also increased, reflecting brain development, but the improvement was much smaller than for the exercise group. “Participating in a daily afterschool PA [physical activity] program enhances executive control,” the researchers conclude.

They recommend modifying current educational policies to give children more occasions for daily physical activity and warn that the current trend toward cutting back exercise opportunities during the school day to boost academic achievement “may have unintended effects,” especially considering that success in reading and math rely heavily on executive control.


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