Study: Kids’ Fitness and Brain Size Linked
By Lila Sahija
Physical fitness has long been linked to better health and improved mood. But now research is suggesting its benefits actually extend to kids’ brain structure, which in turn may have an influence on their academic performance.
More specifically, researchers from the University of Granada have confirmed that physical fitness (especially aerobic capacity and motor ability) in kids is associated with a greater volume of gray matter in several cortical and subcortical brain regions.
Aerobic capacity has been associated with greater gray matter volume in regions critical to executive function (that is, the ability to manage emotions, pay attention, plan, etc.) as well as for learning, motor and visual processes all brain regions and abilities that have been associated with school preparedness and academic performance in other studies.
This study, published in the journal Neuroimage, is part of the ActiveBrains project, which is a randomized clinical trial involving more than 100 overweight/obese children led by Francisco B. Ortega, PhD.
“Our work aims at answering questions such as whether the brain of children with better physical fitness is different from that of children with worse physical fitness and if this affects their academic performance,” Ortega explained. “The answer is short and forceful: yes, physical fitness in children is linked in a direct way to important brain structure differences, and such differences are reflected in the children’s academic performance.”
The research moreover found motor ability with a greater gray matter volume in two regions essential for language processing and reading. Muscular strength, however, didn’t show any correlation with gray matter volume.
These increases in gray matter volume improves in turn the kids’ academic performance, explained Irene Esteban-Cornejo, PhD. Which is exciting, because “physical fitness is a factor that can be modified through physical exercise, and combining exercises that improve the aerobic capacity and the motor ability would be an effective approach to stimulate brain development and academic performance in overweight/obese children.”
This finding feels critical in the wake of the recent report by The Lancet finding that childhood obesity has increased ten times over the last 40 years. Giving kids the best start in life shouldn’t just be about their stomachs and waists, but also about their brains. Now it turns out that was the case all along.