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Maximize your mobility Can exercise improve brain performance in kids?

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The positive impact of physical activity on brain performance is not a new concept.

The aphorism ‘I’m going for a walk to clear my head’ has been around for centuries. Ever since the scientific investigation of cognition and exercise began in the 1930s, a growing body of research is showing how being physically active improves a multitude of thinking and memory tasks.

A 2008 article from the journal Nature states “Human and non-human animal studies have shown that aerobic exercise can improve a number of aspects of cognition and performance”.

The same article addresses other effects of physical activity in children. It points out that a growing body of evidence is showing that kids are becoming increasingly sedentary and unfit, making them more likely to develop chronic disease later in life.

This is especially concerning because the article also states “...As a result, recent estimates have indicated that younger generations, for the first time in United States history, might live less healthy lives than their parents.”

Published in the journal Pediatrics, a group of scientists designed a study to establish a direct relationship between physical activity and performance. For the study, “Two hundred twenty-one children (7–9 years) were randomly assigned to a 9-month afterschool PA (physical activity) program or a wait-list control. In addition to changes in fitness (maximal oxygen consumption), electrical activity in the brain (P3-ERP) and behavioral measures (accuracy, reaction time) of executive control were collected by using tasks that modulated attentional inhibition and cognitive flexibility.”

The authors concluded, “The intervention enhanced cognitive performance and brain function during tasks requiring greater executive control. These findings demonstrate a causal effect of a PA program on executive control, and provide support for PA for improving childhood cognition and brain health.”

While further research is being conducted to find the ideal type and duration of exercise, there seems to be enough evidence for most major medical associations to strongly recommend regular physical activity during childhood.

For some local expertise, I spoke to Dr. Carrie Ricci. Dr. Ricci is a pediatrician at Petoskey Child Health Associates in Petoskey.

MYM: How much exercise do you recommend for your patients?

Ricci: “I recommend 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily for my patients. The activity should be vigorous at least three days per week. This recommendation can be met either through multiple short periods (at least 10 minutes) throughout the day or a continuous 60-minute period.”

MYM: Is there a specific type of exercise that you suggest to patients and their families?

Ricci: “It is important that the exercise is aerobic. I explain to my patients that this means that their heart should be beating fast, they should be breathing fast and sweating. I do not have a particular exercise or activity that I recommend. I try to brainstorm with the patient and parent(s) to come up with a list of aerobic activities that the child enjoys. My hope is that the patient feels the activities are fun and will stick with them, instead of viewing exercise as a chore.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has some additional insight regarding exercise for kids.

Who can benefit?

Research has clearly shown that exercise improves cognitive performance in school-age children. The age groups 4-7 and 11-13 showed even more benefit compared to kids in other age ranges. Interestingly, older adults who exercise also showed significantly better performance compared to their sedentary counterparts on psychomotor tasks.

At what age should exercise begin?

As early as possible, it seems. Findings suggest that “... although physical activity might be beneficial at all stages of life, early intervention might be important for the improvement and/or maintenance of cognitive health and function throughout the adult lifespan”.

Jeff Samyn is a Physical Therapist, board certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist, and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Northern Michigan Sports Medicine Center in Petoskey. He can be reached via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. This information is not to be considered medical advice and is not intended to replace consultation with a qualified medical professional.

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