As parents, we all want to do whatever it takes to help our children do better in the classroom. We read their favorite books over and over, listen to classical music with them, help them memorize their times tables, and hire tutors, all in a quest to help them do better academically. But all of these efforts ignore a key factor in fostering brilliant little brains. Exercise! Why should you get your child moving? Read on to get educated about the science behind the cognitive benefits of exercise.
Know the Facts.
It's a well known fact that exercise can improve cardio-respiratory capacity and muscular strength, but researchers have also found that it contributes significantly to the improvement of cognitive performance in children: kids who exercise on a regular basis have better language skills and process information more effectively.
An extensive 2014 study on physical activity and cognitive performance found that encouraging children to jump, hop, run, chase each other, or kick balls—otherwise known as exercise—significantly improves their ability to think.
Dr. Charles Hillman, professor of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois led the study of 221 children aged 7-9 “to assess the effect of a physical activity intervention on brain and behavioral indices of executive control in preadolescent children.” (1)
Here's Hillman's take-away from his research: “The brain function of higher fit kids is different, in the sense that they appear to be able to better allocate resources in the brain towards aspects of cognition that support reading comprehension.”
In a different study, University of Illinois Postdoctoral researcher Laura Chaddock-Heyman teamed up with Hillman and Illinois Psychology professor Arthur Kramer to investigate further. Studying the brains of 9- and 10-year-olds, they explored how aerobic fitness relates to white matter in children's brains. The study found that kids who were more fit had more fibrous and compact white-matter tracts in their brain than their less-fit peers. Simply put, the more compact the white matter in a child’s brain, the faster and more efficient their nerve activity is, leading to improved cognitive function. (2)
What's the bottom line?
The research seems to suggest that exercise builds more efficient brains.
Based on these findings, we know that aerobic fitness is a key factor for healthy brains. But a child’s regular exercise schedule can be overlooked when the pressure to excel academically is looming over them. Kids are busier than ever, and exercise can easily be relegated to the bottom of the list. These studies underline the importance of physical activity for children’s brain health and development, particularly the thinking skills that most affect academic performance.
What should your action plan be?
Try these simple tips to help your child get the exercise their brain craves.
- Take a 10 minute walk or play a quick game of basketball just before homework time.
- Friday family movie night? Try family kickball night instead!
- Try a mini fit-break: after every 15 minutes of school work, challenge your kids to take 30 seconds to do some push-ups or jumping jacks.
- For the littlest learners: engage them in an active game of Simon Says!
- Make exercise a regular part of the whole family’s day.
Your kids will be thankful for the much-needed break, and the long-term effects on their cognitive abilities will only serve to benefit them in life. As Dr. Hillman says, "Get kids to be physically active for the sake of their brains, as well as their health." After all, it’s better to study smart than to study hard!
- Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function, Pediatrics July 2014
- Physically fit kids have beefier brain white matter than their less-fit peers, Illinois News Bureau August 2014
- How Exercise Can Boost Young Brains - New York Times, October 8, 2014