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 pathways


• 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 impulsive. 

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 more focused?

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).

And what 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 2011).

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.

And 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.

References: Cognitive benefits of exercise for children

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Colcombe, S. & Kramer, A.F. 2003. Fitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults: A meta-analytic study. Psychological Science, 14, 125-130.

Cotman, C.W. & Berchtold, N.C. 2002. Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity. Trends in Neurosciences, 25 (6), 295-301.

Davis CL, Tomporowski PD, Boyle CA, Waller JL, Miller PH, Naglieri JA, Gregoski M. 2007. Effects of aerobic exercise on overweight children's cognitive functioning: a randomized controlled trial. Res Q Exerc Sport. 78(5):510-9.

Davis CL, Tomporowski PD, McDowell JE, Austin BP, Miller PH, Yanasak NE, Allison JD, Naglieri JA. 2011.Exercise improves executive function and achievement and alters brain activation in overweight children: A randomized, controlled trial. Health Psychol. 30(1):91-8

Dietrich, A. & Sparling, P.B. 2004. Endurance exercise selectively impairs prefrontal-dependent cognition. Brain and Cognition, 55 (3), 516-524.

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Content of "The cognitive benefits of exercise for children" last modified 3/15

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