Houston, Texas, USA : We know that exercise boosts memory and thinking skills. But now, researchers have shown for the first time that physical activity can increase the size of children’s brains and improve academic performance.
The study by a team from the University of Granada in Spain found that children who are physically fit have a greater volume of grey matter in the brain’s frontal and temporal regions and the calcarine cortex, all of which are important for executive function (the mental skills that help us get things done), as well as learning, motor skills and visual processing.
The researchers aimed to determine whether the brains of physically fit children were different to those of their less-fit peers and if this affected their academic performance.
“The answer is short and forceful: yes, physical fitness in children is linked in a direct way to important brain structure differences, and such differences are reflected in the children’s academic performance,” said lead researcher Francisco B Ortega, of the University of Granada’s Sport and Health Institute.
The study, published in the NeuroImage journal, is part of the ActiveBrains project, a randomized clinical trial involving more than 100 overweight and obese children aged between eight and 11.
The researchers found motor ability helped boost grey matter in two regions essential for language processing and reading: the inferior frontal gyrus and the superior temporal gyrus.
However, they found no link between muscular strength and the volume of grey matter in any part of the brain.
The paper’s main author, Irene Esteban-Cornejo, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Granada, said that grey-matter volume in the cortical and sub-cortical regions influenced by physical fitness improved the children’s academic performance.
Moreover, she added: “Physical fitness is a factor that can be modified through physical exercise, and combining exercises that improve the aerobic capacity and the motor ability would be an effective approach to stimulate brain development and academic performance in overweight and obese children.”
The number of overweight or obese children is on the rise around the world, increasing from 32 million globally in 1990 to 41 million in 2016.
Obesity rates are also climbing far faster in developing countries than in high-income countries as economic prosperity leads to changing diets and lifestyles.
The researchers at the University of Granada have urged policy-makers and educators to put their findings into practice in schools by teaching physical education every day.
A second study found that vigorous activity during childhood cuts heart disease risk later in life:
Vigorous Activity During Childhood Cuts Heart Disease Risk Later In Life
There are plenty of immediate and short-term benefits for children who regularly play sports, but a recent study shows that physically fit children may have the healthiest hearts during their adult years.
Scientists from the University of Exeter say that, in order to significantly lower the risk of heart disease later in life, teenagers need vigorous physical activity to maintain physical fitness.
Current health guidelines in the United Kingdom and elsewhere suggest kids between 5 and 18 should commit to at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day to maintain heart health and fitness.
But researchers say the difference between “moderate” and “vigorous” activity can be huge.
The study’s authors found that only vigorous activity, or any activity that leaves an individual out of breath and sweating, such as team sports or running, had significant effects on heart disease risk factors. Such factors include body mass index (BMI) or waist size.
“Many previous studies have put moderate and vigorous physical activity together when looking at potential health benefits, as this is what health guidelines are based on,” explains Dr. Alan Barker, a senior lecturer of paediatric exercise and health at the university, in a release. “We wanted to separate these and see whether their effects varied. Moderate activity has many health benefits, but in specific terms of reducing risk factors for cardiovascular disease, it’s vigorous activity that appears to make a difference.”
Vigorous activity is defined in this case as physical activity that uses six times the amount of energy a person uses when resting, according to the researchers. These activities include jogging, swimming, cycling, and more.
Barker and his team also connected an adolescent’s time spent watching television and risk factors for developing diabetes or heart disease in their adult years.
The second study was published in the International Journal of Cardiology.