With the dramatic obesity problem facing youth in the United States today, boosting physical activity for children has become more critically important than ever.
What many parents and educators don’t realize, however, is that which many scientists have surmised for quite some time – an understanding that physical activity can actually help children to excel in school, too. In fact, it’s been long held that the more physically fit a child is, the better their brain will function and the better they will perform on mental tests as well as physical tests.
Now, for the first time ever, researchers have found evidence connecting physical activity to an actual process in the brain that increases brain matter and, they believe, consequently increases cognitive abilities.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, including psychology research associate Laura Chaddock-Heyman, have found that the “white matter” in the brain, where critical functions like attention and memory are performed, is more dense in children who are more physically fit and active than in those who aren’t.
While there have been previous studies that hinted at a physical activity/brain enhancement connection, this is the first time that an actual change in brain matter has been proven due to physical activity, something that is very exciting for these researchers as you might well imagine.
The study also showed that other improvements in brain function come with physical exercise and improved fitness, such as the way brain signals are sent via the aforementioned white matter that physical activity enriched.
Truth be told, the researchers still haven’t definitively connected the increase in white matter to an increase in cognitive function, something that, as Chaddock-Heyman says, is still “speculation at this point.”
While it has been shown definitively that the white matter in the brain was healthier and denser in physically active children, researchers are still trying to make the connection between this white matter and improved cognitive abilities.
The research that Chaddock-Heyman and her colleagues are involved in also includes a five-year trial where aerobic fitness activities, white matter brain changes and academic performance are being tracked among hundreds of randomly assigned students.
One fact that researchers are sure of, unfortunately, is that today’s schools are contributing more and more to our sedentary lifestyle, especially since many have done away with their physical education programs altogether.
“We know that aerobic fitness is related to the size of brain structures as well as their function,” says Chaddock-Heyman. She and her colleagues believe that the key to learning, especially in children, is to keep their brains active, and physical activity is definitely an important part of doing just that.
For parents who are keen on helping their children to do well in school it seems that, while studying is certainly still important, making sure that the kids get plenty of physical exercise is important as well.
Journal source: Chaddock-Heyman L, Erickson KI, Holtrop JL, Voss MW, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Hillman CH and Kramer AF (2014) Aerobic fitness is associated with greater white matter integrity in children. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8:584. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00584