The brain activity and thinking ability of inactive and overweight children improves with exercise. The results of a study of 171 x 7 – 11 year old sedentary and overweight children presents educators the proof they need to make sure that regular physical activity is a part of each and every school day.
Cognition measuring tools were used to measure abilities like planning as well as academic skills like reading and math. A subgroup of the children had been given functional magnetic resonance imaging which highlighted decreased or increased areas of brain activity.
Increased brain activity in the prefrontal cortex was seen in MRIs of those who exercised and decreased activity in a part of the brain which sits behind it. The prefrontal cortex is an area connected to decision making, complex thinking and correct social behavior. The shift forward seems to be consistent with quicker cognitive skill development. The result was better as the children exercised more. Intelligence scores increased an average 3.8 points in children exercising 40 minutes a day for 3 months after school with a lesser benefit in children who exercised 20 minutes a day.
Activity in the area of the brain responsible for so-called executive function also increased with exercise.
Math skills showed similar improvement although no improvements were seen in reading skill. Improved math achievement was impressive given that no math lessons were presented and indicates longer intervention can produce even better outcomes.
Kids in the exercise program played hard with jump ropes, hula hoops and running games, raising their heart rates to 79% of maximum, which is regarded as vigorous.
Cognitive improvements probably resulted from the stimulation of the brain due to movement as opposed to resulting cardiovascular improvements, like increased oxygen and blood supplies.
Vigorous physical activity such as this promotes development of brain systems that underlie behavior and cognition. Animal studies have shown that growth factors are increased with aerobic activity so the brain gets more neurons as well as more connections between neurons. Research in adults has revealed that the brain benefits from exercise and this research extends to children and the ability for them to learn.
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