It is back-to-school season and parents are wondering what they can do to help their children learn and stay healthy this year. Doing well in school is not just about hitting the books. A number of studies demonstrate that physical activity supports cognitive abilities, helping children’s brains to work more efficiently, and improving skills like executive function. Exercise has many benefits for the developing brain that can help children achieve back-to-school success.
Even though many schools are limiting recess and physical education classes, research shows that exercise is good for the brain and the body. One study demonstrated that physical education class was correlated with better grades and improved scores on standardized tests. In a study published in 2007, researchers analyzed how aerobic exercise affected the cognitive functions of overweight and sedentary children. The children scored much better on tests after 15 weeks of regular exercise.
Other studies link certain brain regions with higher levels of activity. Exercise is associated with activity in parts of the brain that solve problems and do complex thinking. Exercise also helps children better process stimuli. One study found that physically fit children processed information and visual stimuli faster than sedentary children.
Exercise can help the brain rebuild itself. In one study, researchers compared the brains of mice who regularly used an exercise wheel to mice who did not have access to an exercise wheel. The brains of mice that exercised produced twice as many new brain cells in the hippocampus—the brain region responsible for memory—than the sedentary mice. A related study from Cambridge University found that running stimulates neurogenesis, the process of creating new brain cells. Running is particularly beneficial for brain regions related to sensory perfection and muscle control.
Executive function is the ability for an individual to manage daily tasks and cognitive functions like problem solving and prioritizing. Exercise can support executive function in a few ways. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which means the brain can take in more oxygen and nutrients. Exercise also supports the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps in learning, memory, and complex thought.
To help your children do their best in school, encourage them to exercise. Kids can walk to school, play with friends, or join a sports team. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that children should do 60 minutes of physical activity every day.
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