Exercise for children: The cognitive benefits

© 2008-2014 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: A key study

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?

Admittedly, most of what we know about exercise comes from research on rodents, not humans. Ethical considerations prevent us from running the van Pragg experiments on kids.

But some studies have been conducted on kids, and the results suggest that aerobic exercise can make kids more focused and less impulsive. 

First, there are the correlations.

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 2009).

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).

Second, research suggests you can improve cognitive outcomes by increasing the physical activity levels of previously sedentary children.

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).

Finally, there is the indirect evidence, the outcomes at primary schools where administrators cut back on academic instruction in order to make more time for physical play. If playful exercise no effect on cognition, you might expect that kids' academic performance would have suffered. But instead, kids either maintained or improved their academic performance (Trudeau and Shephard 2008).

Exercise for children:

A safe bet...but make it fun

Correlations don’t tell us about causation. It’s possible, for instance, that smarter kids are more likely to seek out physical activity. That could explain the results of the stimulus discrimination study.

Moreover, 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 rodent experiments are compelling, and recent experiments on kids suggest that exercise 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

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.

Guiney H and Machado L. 2012. Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. DOI 10.3758/s13423-012-0345-4.

Keita Kamijo, Matthew B. Pontifex, Kevin C. O’Leary, Mark R. Scudder, Chien-Ting Wu, Darla M. Castelli, Charles H. Hillman. 2011. The effects of an afterschool physical activity program on working memory in preadolescent children. Dev Sci. 14(5): 1046–1058.

Hillman CH, Castelli DM, and Buck SM. 2005. Aerobic fitness and neurocognitive function in healthy preadolescent children. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 37(11): 1967-1974.

Hillman CH, Buck SM, Themanson JR, Pontifex MB, Castelli DM. 2009. Aerobic fitness and cognitive development: Event-related brain potential and task performance indices of executive control in preadolescent children. Dev Psychol. 2009 Jan;45(1):114-29. doi: 10.1037/a0014437.

Hillman CH, Pontifex MB, Castelli DM, Khan NA, Raine LB, Scudder MR, Drollette ES, Moore RD, Wu CT, Kamijo K. 2014. Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function. Pediatrics Sep 29. pii: peds.2013-3219. [Epub ahead of print]

Kramer AF, Colcombe SJ, McAuley E, Scalf PE, and Erickson KI. 2005. Fitness, aging and neurocognitive function. Neurobiol Aging. 2005 Dec;26 Suppl 1:124-7.

Lees and Hopkins 2013. Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition, academic achievement, and psychosocial function in children: a systematic review of randomized control trials. Prev Chronic Dis. 10:E174.

Molteni, R., Wu, A., Vaynman, S., Ying, Z., Barnard, R.J. & Gómez-Pinilla, F. 2004. Exercise reverses the harmful effects of consumption of a high-fat diet on synaptic and behavioral plasticity associated to the action of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Neuroscience, 123 (2), 429-440.

Moore RD, Wu CT, Pontifex MB, O'Leary KC, Scudder MR, Raine LB, Johnson CR, and Hillman CH. 2013. Aerobic fitness and intra-individual variability of neurocognition in preadolescent children. Brain Cogn. 82(1):43-57.

Tomporowski, P.D. 2003. Effects of acute bouts of exercise on cognition. Acta Psychol (Amst), 112, 297-324.

van Praag H, Christie BR, Sejnowski TJ, Gage FH 1999. Running enhances neurogenesis, learning, and long-term potentiation in mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 96, 13427-31.

Voss MW, Chaddock L, Kim JS, Vanpatter M, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Cohen NJ, Hillman CH, and Kramer AF. 2011. Aerobic fitness is associated with greater efficiency of the network underlying cognitive control in preadolescent children. Neuroscience 199:166-76.

Wu CT, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Chaddock L, Voss MW, Kramer AF, Hillman CH. 2011. Aerobic fitness and response variability in preadolescent children performing a cognitive control task. Neuropsychology. 25(3):333-41.

Content of "The cognitive benefits of exercise for children" last modified 9/14