Exercise for children: The cognitive benefits
© 2008-2016 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Exercise for children may do far more than improve physical
fitness. It may also stimulate brain growth and boost cognitive
performance. How do we know?
Lessons from mice
At the Salk Institute, Henriette van Pragg and her colleagues
compared sedentary mice with mice that ran an average of 3 miles each
night on a running wheel (van Pragg et al 1999).
Compared with the couch potatoes, the aerobically-challenged mice showed dramatic brain growth.
Specifically, the hippocampus—-a brain region associated with learning and memory--was twice as large.
In addition, the brain cells of the aerobic mouse could sustain
longer bouts of “long-term potentiation," the increased efficiency of
communication between neurons that occurs after neurons fire.
Better learning, too
Did these changes translate into better learning? Indeed they did.
Mice who exercised performed better on a spatial learning task (finding
their way through a water maze).
Why does it work?
Exercise is known to improve mood. Might that explain these results? Perhaps animals learn better when they feel better.
The explanation sounds plausible and may account for some of the effect. But it seems pretty clear there is more going on.
Since the late 1990s, research has revealed that aerobic exercise
• boosts levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a substance essential for the growth of brain cells
• stimulates neurogenesis—the birth of new neurons
• mobilizes the expression of genes that are believed to enhance
brain plasticity—i.e., the ability of the brain to change its neural
• prevents brain tissue loss in older adults
(For reviews, see Cotman and Berchtold 2002 and von Pragg 2008).
What about kids?
Much of what we know about the cognitive effects of exercise comes from brain research
on rodents, not humans. But some studies have been conducted on children, and the results
suggest that aerobic exercise can make kids more focused and less
For instance, when kids have been challenged with cognitive tasks that require lots of concentration and attentional control, individuals with higher aerobic fitness have performed with more accuracy, and sometimes faster reaction times, too (Moore et al 2013; Wu et al 2011; Voss et al 2011; Hillman et al 2005; Hillman et al 2009b).
Fit children also showed distinctive patterns of brain activity. For example, when school children
were asked to view some images of animals and make quick judgments
about them ("Is it a cat or a dog?"), physically fit kids had faster reaction times, and their brains showed evidence of more
extensive processing during the task (Hillman et al 2005).
But as intriguing as these correlations are, they don't prove causation.What if smarter kids are more likely to seek out physical activity? That could explain the results.
So we need randomized, controlled experiments (Janssen et al 2014). And in recent years there have been several.
Mounting evidence for the cognitive benefits of exercise
Some research has been aimed at understanding the immediate effects
of aerobic activity. Does a quick bout of exercise make a child feel
In one recent experiment, kids who ordinarily
performed poorly on attention tasks improved their accuracy when tested
shortly after "moderate acute exercise" -- 20 minutes of walking on a
treadmill (Drollette et al 2014).
Another experiment randomly assigned 56 school kids to one of three morning school sessions:
- sitting all morning
- getting a
20-minute break of physical activity after 90 minutes; and
- getting two 20-minute physical
activity bouts, one at the start and after 90min
The kids who got two bouts of morning exercise performed better on a test of attention -- and this was true even after the researchers adjusted for baseline differences in attention and children's involvement in sports (Altenburg 2015).
about ADHD? When researchers tested the effects of short-term exercise
on kids diagnosed with ADHD, they found that aerobic activity gave these
kids a special boost, altering their brain activity in ways that might
enhance self-discipline (Pontifex et al 2013).
Then there are
the interventions aimed at understanding long-term outcomes. What
happens if you enroll previously sedentary children in a program of
daily physical exercise? One randomized, controlled study of overweight
kids found that 40 minutes a day of aerobic exercise improved executive
function, that aspect of intelligence that helps us pay attention, plan,
and resist distractions (Davis et al 2007).
Another experiment replicated these results,
and found that 13 weeks of aerobic exercise was also linked with
improved math skills and increased activity in the bilateral prefrontal
cortex, a brain region associated with executive function (Davis et al
Similarly, when Keita Kamijo and colleagues randomly assigned 20
youngsters (aged 7-9 years) to an after-school exercise program, kids
who got 70 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day
showed improvements solving tasks that taxed executive control and
working memory (Kamijo et al 2012). Kids in a control group did not.
a recent randomized study of more than 220 school children found that
kids assigned to engage in 60 minutes of daily, after-school aerobic
activities performed better on tests of focus and cognitive
flexibility--the ability to switch between tasks while maintaining speed
and accuracy (Hillman et al 2014).
Does physical exercise boost academic achievement?
We've got evidence that exercise can improve a child's ability to focus. But does that translate into better academic performance? There is reason to think so.
Kids have shown improved performance in the immediate aftermath of a workout.
For instance, one experiment found that a 20
minute session of walking boosted children's performance on tests of
reading, spelling, and arithmetic (Hillman et al 2009a). Another study found that kids who exercised 10-20 minutes prior to a math test outperformed kids in sedentary control group (Howie et al 2015).
Kids have also experienced long-term improvements. As noted above, one experimental study found that kids showed improved mathematics
skills after a 13-week exercise program (Davis et al 2011).
And another randomized study supports the idea that physical activity boosts academic achievement. Kids who were assigned a daily schedule with more physical activity breaks outperformed their control-group peers in mathematics and reading (Tomporowski 2016).
Exercise for children:
A safe bet...but make it fun
Can we assume that exercise will help every child perform better in school? Perhaps not. In some studies of aerobic
exercise, the reported effects have been small or non-existent. As
Caitlin Lees and Jessica Hopkins (2013) argue, we need more rigorous
research to better understand what's going on.
But the experiments
on rodents and children suggest that aerobic activity does indeed has a positive effect of cognitive
performance. Given that physical fitness is also good for the body, it
seems we have nothing to lose by encouraging kids to exercise.
Still, there’s a catch: Exercise should be fun. The mouse experiments are based on voluntary wheel-running. When rodents are forced to exercise, they don’t always reap the benefits.
So it’s important to find form(s) of aerobic exercise that your
child really enjoys. Structured activities--like team sports or dance lessons--may be fine options. But so are nature walks, tree-climbing,
roller-skating, and playing hide-and-seek.
In fact, play--like exercise--is good for the brain.
Perhaps the most effective exercise for children is free, unstructured, physical play.
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Content of "The cognitive benefits of exercise for children" last modified 3/15
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