To date, studies of the effect of exercise on the actual shape and function of children’s brains had not been carried out. So, in a recent experiment, researchers at the University of Illinois recruited schoolchildren and asked them to run on a treadmill, in order to learn more about how fitness affects the young human brain, reports New York Times.
Based on their treadmill runs, the researchers sorted the children, ages 9 and 10, into different fitness categories. The most- and least-fit groups then completed a series of cognitive challenges. Finally, the children’s brains were scanned, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to measure the volume of specific areas.
Previous studies found that fitter kids generally scored better on such tests. And this study was no exception. But the MRI’s provided a clearer picture, showing that fit children had significantly larger basal ganglia, a key part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and “executive control,” namely, the ability to coordinate actions and thoughts quickly.
“These findings arrive at an important time”, argues the New York Times article. “For budgetary and administrative reasons, school boards are curtailing physical education, while on their own, children grow increasingly sluggish.” Indeed, recent statistics show that roughly a quarter of children participate in zero physical activity outside of school.
So get kids moving, but don’t let them indulge in their Wiis. According to the article, an unpublished study from the lab of Professor Georg Kuhn at the University of Gothenburg compared the cognitive impact in young people of 20 minutes of running on a treadmill with 20 minutes of playing sports-style video games, such as Wii, at a similar intensity. Running “improved test scores immediately afterward”. Playing video games, on the other hand, “did not”.