Research validates theory physical activity can mean improved brain power
Chase D'Antonio prepares to return to his first-grade classroom at Sewickley Academy after an energetic gym class, where he and his peers threw and chased colorful balls in a game called Island Ball.
How does he feel after all that exercise?
“Good,” says Chase, a 6-year-old Sewickley resident, with a thumbs up. “I feel really good. I love school.”
Exercise — whether from gym class, recess games or out-of-school exercise — not only makes kids feel good and improves their health, but that activity boosts their brainpower and school performance, research suggests.
A study recently published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests that kids who are more physically active and fit perform better academically in school. Laura Chaddock-Heyman — a research associate and post-doctoral research scientist at the University of Illinois Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, in Urbana — and some colleagues hypothesized that highly physically fit children would show greater brain white-matter microstructure than their less-fit peers. Researchers used a technique called diffusion tensor imagine to measure the structure of the white matter and see how structurally sound they are.
The results fit the theory, she says.
“Aerobic fitness has been found to play a positive role in brain and cognitive health of children,” Chaddock-Heyman says.
The differences in brain health often come with performance differences, such as cognitive control and memory, and test scores, she says.
Dr. Dana Rofey, a psychologist and researcher in pediatric obesity and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, has collaborated with other professionals in doing similar research about the effects of fitness in children, and she sees the same correlation between physical fitness and brain benefits. The reasons may be both physiological and psychological: Perhaps children who are physically active also show greater discipline in academics, she says.
“For years and decades, we've known that physical activity can help our weight and help our heart,” Rofey says. “Now, it's moving upward, and physical activity can help our brain.”
Rofey has noticed how her daughter — Ella, 5 — seems sharper when she's active, and does dance and soccer.
But parents shouldn't view this issue too simplistically, Rofey says. Physical fitness or the lack of it can't be credited or blamed for all academic successes and challenges. A fit child may be struggling in school because of a learning disability or other reasons, she says.
“We can't make any blanket statements that if you're physically active, it will fix anything going on academically,” she says. “Certainly, you want to rule out other things.”
Cheryl Ann Lassen — the health-and-physical-education chairwoman for Sewickley Academy, a pre-K-12 prep school in Sewickley — says kids may initially be more hyper after gym class or recess, but when they settle down, they show better attention, concentration and the ability to retain things.
“We feel it's very important here,” she says about fitness.
It's not just kids who benefit mentally from exercise. Adults, too, can boost concentration when, say, they take a break at work for a walk.
“It does carry over into every aspect of your life,” Lassen says about exercise benefits. “It really is for everyone.”
Jeff Kapusta, a physical-education teacher for Metzgar and Nicely elementary schools in the Greensburg-Salem School District, agrees that movement helps kids all around.
“Even in the summertime, if kids are more active, I think their brains are working more. They're thinking more,” he says. “I'm a big fan of getting the kids out” to do active play and exercise.
“I definitely think that any activity that the kids do — whether physical education, or recess, in general — is going to have a great effect on how they do in the classroom,” Kapusta says.
Rofey suggests that parents set a good fitness example for their kids by doing regular exercise. And people shouldn't discount small workouts: Even a quick walk helps.
“From a parental standpoint, I always say some movement is better than no movement at all,” Rofey says.
Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7824.