The Athlete's Way

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The Brain Benefits of Healthy Diet and Fitness in Early Life

Diet and physical activity impact childhood cognitive and emotional development.

Researchers continue to discover that early nutrition and physical activity play a critical role in the cognitive, emotional and behavioral development of children. The results from a 5 year study called NUTRIMENTHE, released on September 13, 2013, have have found that nutrition during pre-birth and in early life literally "programs" the long term health, well being, brain development and mental performance of children.

Another study titled, “The Influence of Childhood Aerobic Fitness on Learning and Memory” released on September 11, 2013 found that aerobic fitness improved learning, memory in 9 to 10-year olds. Lauren Raine and colleagues from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found that physical fitness boosts learning and memory in children, particularly when initial learning on a task is more challenging. Their findings were published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

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The researchers from the NUTRIMENTHE project looked at the effect of 5 specific diet variables on the development of optimal mental performance in children up to the age of nine. The five-year study involved hundreds of European families with young children. 

 Five Important Early Life Nutrients:  

  1. Breast milk
  2. Omega-3 fatty acids
  3. B-vitamins
  4. Folic acid
  5. Iodine

The NUTRIMENTHE study found that taking folic acid during the first three months of pregnancy, can reduce the likelihood of behavioral problems during early childhood. Eating oily fish was also found to be very beneficial. Not only because the omega-3 fatty acids are 'building blocks' for brain cells, but also for the iodine content is believed to improve reading ability in children when measured at age nine.

Professor Cristina Campoy, who led the project said, "Short term studies seem unable to detect the real influence of nutrition in early life. NUTRIMENTHE was designed to be a long-term study, as the brain takes a long time to mature, and early deficiencies may have far-reaching effects. So, early nutrition is most important."

The researchers found that many other factors affect mental performance in children including: the parent's educational level, socio-economic status of the parents, age of the parents and the genetic background of the mother and child. This can influence how certain nutrients are processed and transferred during pregnancy and breastfeeding can create a chain reaction that affects mental performance.

Conclusion:  Good Nutrition and Physical Activity Improve Childhood Cognitive Development

Taking a multi-pronged approach of improving a pregnant mother’s nutrition, combined with good nutrition and regular physical activity during early life creates a winning formula for optimal childhood cognitive and behavioral development.

The findings obtained by the NUTRIMENTHE study add a new scientific foundation for dietary recommendations for both pregnant women and children that will lead to improved mental performance. In terms of giving advice to parents, Cristina Campoy explained, "it is important to try to have good nutrition during pregnancy and in the early life of the child and to include breastfeeding if possible, as such 'good nutrition' can have a positive effect on mental performance later in childhood."

Campoy goes on to explain, "however, in the case of genetics, future studies should include research on genetic variation in mothers and children so that the optimum advice can be given. This area is relatively new and will be challenging."

Children who are more aerobically fit perform better cognitively than those who are less aerobically fit. The difference between the high-fitness and low-fitness groups was strongest when the initial learning was performed by studying alone than when testing and study were interspersed. Lauren Raine and colleagues believe, "Future research should focus on the manner in which these factors impact the neural processes of children during learning."

The authors conclude that higher levels of aerobic fitness can benefit learning and memory in school-age children. In addition, the University of Illinois researchers advocate that from an educational policy perspective, "Reducing or eliminating physical education in schools, as is often done in tight financial times, may not be the best way to ensure educational success among our young people."

If you’d like to read more on this topic please check out my Psychology Today blogs: “Human Babies Rely on Primitive Reflexes to Learn Language”, “Exercising at a ‘Conversational Pace’ Is Good for Your Brain”, “Breastfeeding Boosts the Brain Development of a Baby” and “The Neuroscience of Calming a Baby.”

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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