I don’t have many memories of my school-age days. Maybe it’s because I moved around so much as a child, or perhaps it’s because I’ve had two kids and we all know pregnancy and parenthood destroy about 1/3 of your brain. Parenting-induced brain fog aside, I am able to recall one thing from my days of elementary and middle school: Recess. Ahhhh, recess! Every day I looked forward to being able to get out from behind the desk and run around like a crazy person for 30 minutes. For me, those 30 minutes, and PE class, would be the only exercise I would get during the day.
Unfortunately, with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, most schools have significantly reduced the amount of recess time or eliminated recess all together. Never mind that recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 1/4 of children participate in zero physical activity outside of the school environment; the focus now is on preparing our children for testing into the next grade level. Today, physical education and recess are seen as a waste of valuable test-prep time.
Apparently school administrators didn’t get the memo: Exercise makes our brains perform better!
Researchers from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University at Urbana-Champaign gathered a group of 9 and 10-year-olds, assessed their fitness levels, and asked only the most fit and least fit of the kids to run on a treadmill. The children then completed a series of cognitive challenges, as well as an MRI of the brain to measure the volume of specific areas. Their study documents that the fit children not only scored better on the cognitive challenges, but their MRIs showed significantly larger basal ganglia, an area of the brain that helps maintain attention and coordinate actions and thoughts.
In another experiment, the children completed tests that focused on complex memory, which is associated with activity in the brain structure known as the hippocampus. Post-exercise MRI scans demonstrated that the fittest kids had the larger hippocampi.
The researchers noted that the hippocampus and basal ganglia interact in the brain and together facilitate some of the most intricate thinking processes. If exercise increases the size of these two regions and strengthens the connection between them, being fit may provide a cognitive advantage in young children.
Get Your Kids Moving
The bottom line: Kids who engage in aerobic activity improve their capacities for memory, attention, reasoning, and problem-solving. If your child goes to a school where physical activity is not a priority, then make it a priority at home. Have them join an after-school sports team or enroll in a dance or gymnastics class; or better yet, make it a family affair by venturing out together on bike rides, hikes, or 5Ks. Your child will do better in school, and you will do better at whatever your job is!