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Move More, Think Better

Sep 18, 2010 | By Gillian FitzGerald

The results are in: Exercise does makes kids smarter. You too.

Children runningRecently there was an article in The New York Times covering the effect of exercise on the young kids' brains.
In the past, numerous animal studies had shown that baby rodents, who had been given access to running wheels, had increased the size of certains parts of their brain. In short, they bulked up their brains.
When tested against more inactive peers on rodent intelligence tests, the active pups consistently outperformed the sedentiary ones. How this related to humans was unknown, so the University of Illinois set out to test just that.

Treadmill Test Subjects

The researchers recruited nearby school kids, ages 9 and 10, and asked them to run on a treadmill. The children were then sorted into three groups - highest, lowest and median-fitness. The highest and lowest fitness kids (selected for the greatest contrast in fitness) were then put through a series of cognitive tests, which involved watching directional arrows on a computer screen and pushing various keys, to see how well they could filter out unnecessary information and pick up relevant clues. Afterwards, the children's brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging technology (M.R.I.) to measure volume in certain parts of the brains.

Position of the basal ganglia in the brainBrain Building Effects

Now previous studies had shown that fitter kids always performed better, and the results were no different here. What was different was that M.R.I.s were taken that pointed out why this might be so. Like the baby rodents, the fitter kids had significantly larger basal ganglia, the part of the brain that helps maintain attention and the ability to coordinate actions and thoughts efficiently, than their less fit counterparts. And since the kids all came from similar socioeconomic background, with similar body mass indexes and other variables, the researchers concluded that it was the exercise that made the difference.

Adjacent Study Shows Similar Results

Position of the hippocampus in the brainAt the same time, an independent study, also at the University of Illinois, was conducted on a second group of 9- and 10-year old children. They too were grouped by fitness level and had their brains scanned. But this group did a series of different challenges that tested complex memory instead, which is linked to the hippocampus, a structure in the brain's medial temporal lobes. Surprise, surprise, the same results emerged: fitter kids had heftier hippocampi.

Both the hippocampus and basal ganglia interact with each other to allow some of the most complex thinking. And if exercise increases the size of and connections between these brain areas, researchers concluded that being fit may enhance neurocognition in young people.
Hmmn. Guess Mum and Dad knew something when they chased us outside to play.

Supporting Links Elsewhere

Any aerobic exercise appears to have some benefit. Previous studies from the same university also found that a mere 20 minutes of walking before a test raised kids' scores, irrespective if they were fit, unfit or overweight.
The same type of activity has also been found to be highly beneficial for kids suffering from ADHD, covered in previous post, as it sharpened their attention span without any use of medication.

If that wasn't compelling enough, there is a Swedish study, conducted over many years, published last year which studied over a million 18 year-old boys who joined the army. The results? The higher the fitness level, the higher I.Q., even amongst identical twins. But this is no short-term result. The fittest boys were also more likely to achieve lucrative careers vs. staying at home in their parent's basement.

All Exercise May Not Be Equal

Interestingly, in this same study, muscular strength was found to have no bearing on I.Q. so unfortunately the "dumb jock' label has not been blasted into oblivion.
Just to clarify, there's no evidence stating exercise raises your I.Q., but the general conclusion is that aerobic exercise, not strength training, produces specific growth factors and proteins that stimulate the brain.

And if you're still not convinced to put down the Wii and get out the hulahoop, a still unpublished study from the University of illinois tested the just that. Young kids were cognitively tested after 20 minutes pounding away on the treadmill vs. 20 minutes of similar intensity sport styled video games.  The results? Running boosted scores, video games, did not.

Tags : exercise, activity, brain, IQ, performance, education, children, kids, school

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