Study: An Hour of Physical Activity a Day Helps Kids Think Better

Monday, October 06, 2014
Here’s another reason to get your kids off the couch and make them run around instead: It will help them think better.

In a paper published in Pediatrics, researchers report that kids 7- to 9-years old who attended a daily, after-school fitness program showed an increased ability to pay attention, avoid distraction and switch between tasks at the end of a nine-month period, compared with a control group that did not attend the program.

“Our study shows that brain activation was different in the ‘FIT Kids’ group compared to a control group,” said Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and lead author of the paper.

The study involved a total of 222 elementary-school-aged children. Half of them were accepted to a free fitness program called “FIT Kids” (for “Fitness Improves Thinking”) that met daily after school on the campus of the University of Illinois. The other half were put on a wait list for the program, and were used as a control group.

The kids enrolled in FIT Kids were bused to a facility after their school day ended. After arriving, they were given some quick fitness tasks — jumping jacks or push-ups, just to get them moving. Then there was a snack and a quick lesson on healthy living — for example, they might learn about soccer or what types of foods are healthiest to eat. Then they would put on heart rate monitors and pedometers and play physical games.

On average, the kids’ rate monitors indicated that activity was moderate to vigorous, and they averaged about 4,500 steps over the course of the two-hour program.

All the kids in the study, both those enrolled in FIT Kids and those on the wait list, went through a series of tests that measured aerobic fitness and cognitive functions at the beginning and end of the nine months. When the kids were tested for cognitive function, they also wore an EEG cap that measured their brain activity.

At the end of the nine months, the physical fitness of the kids in the after-school program had improved by 6 percent, compared to just 1 percent improvement in the control group.

The researchers also found that the kids in the program had a 10 percent increase in accuracy on a series of cognitive tests, while the control group saw an increase of just 5 percent.

The researchers report that the EEG measured more activity in the brains of the kids who participated in FIT Kids than their wait-listed peers.

It also seems that the number of FIT Kids classes a child attended had an effect on how well he or she performed on the cognitive tests: Kids who showed up to more classes performed better.

In the conclusion of the paper, the researchers lament the “rapid decline in physical activity opportunities for children at school,” and say policies that reduce or replace these opportunities in an effort to increase academic achievement may have “unintended consequences.”

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