TUESDAY, Aug. 19, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Exercise and
brainpower in children may not seem closely related, but a small
new study hints that fitness may supercharge kids' minds.
The finding doesn't prove that fitness actually makes children
smarter, but it provides support for the idea, the researchers
"Our work suggests that aerobically fit and physically fit children have improved brain health and superior cognitive [thinking] skills than their less-fit peers," said study author Laura Chaddock-Heyman, a postdoctoral researcher with the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Hopefully, these findings will reinforce the importance of aerobic fitness during development and lead to additional physical activity opportunities in and out of the school environment."
The researchers launched their study to gain more insight into
the connections between fitness and the brain in children. Other
research has connected higher levels of fitness to better
attention, memory and academic skills, Chaddock-Heyman said.
And two recent studies found that fit kids are more likely to
have better language skills and to do better on standardized tests
for math and reading.
But there are still mysteries. While moderate exercise boosts
brainpower for a few hours -- making it a good idea to work out
before a test -- it's not clear how fitness affects the brain in
the long term, said Bonita Marks, director of the Exercise Science
Teaching Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"The chronic impact is less certain and, for health, really the key
for future research and health management," she added.
The new study didn't examine any thinking skills, but instead
looked only at the brain's "white matter," which helps different
brain regions communicate with each other. The researchers scanned
the brains of 24 kids aged 9 and 10, and found that white matter
was different in the fitter kids, potentially a sign of
Higher levels of fitness may boost blood flow, increase the size
of certain brain areas and improve the structure of white matter,
What do the findings mean in the big picture?
It's hard to know for sure. Megan Herting, a postdoctoral fellow
with the division of research on Children, Youth, and Families at
Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, pointed out that the kids with
lower fitness levels also weighed more, "so it is unclear if it is
actually fitness or 'fatness' that may be affecting the brain.
"Studies show that individuals with obesity have different brains
compared to their healthier-weight peers," she said.
As for the stereotype of the 99-pound weakling nerd, Herting
suggested it may be time for a rethink. "These findings do
challenge that if you are aerobically fit, you are likely to be
dumb. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, we were made to
move. So rather than fitness being 'good' for the brain and
cognition, it is feasible that being sedentary may be 'bad.'"
The researchers are now working on a study that assigns some
kids to take part in exercise programs to see what happens to their
brains over time when compared to other kids, Chaddock-Heyman
The study appears in the August issue of the journal
Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
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