The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Physically Fit Children Have Enhanced Brain Powers

Aerobic fitness linked to improved language processing and academic achievement.

A new study has found that children who are physically fit have faster and more robust neuro-electrical brain responses while reading than kids who were less aerobically fit.

The researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that children who are more fit had better language skills than their less-fit peers. These language skills were linked to brain synapses that fired with more strength and faster speed.

The study, “The Association Between Aerobic Fitness and Language Processing in Children: Implications for Academic Achievement," was published in the June 2014 issue of the journal Brain and Cognition. Charles Hillman led the research team that also included graduate student Mark Scudder and psychology professor Kara Federmeier.

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How quickly can you decipher this Jabberwocky?

Although the study did not empirically prove exactly how aerobic fitness influences changes in the electrical activity of the brain, the researchers say their findings clearly show a direct correlation between fitness levels and cognitive performance on a variety of tasks.

The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG)  to capture the speed and robustness of electrical impulses associated with brainwave activity. Interestingly, physically fit kids had more adept language skills both when reading straightforward sentences or sentences that contain errors of grammar or syntax.

The Illinois researchers focused on a brainwave pattern called N400 which is an "event-related potential" (ERP) that has been linked to brain processing patterns used to identify the meaning of a word. They also looked at another brain waveform called P600 which is associated with verifying the grammatical rules of a sentence.

The waveform known as N400 tends to be less pronounced when someone reads a sentence that makes perfect sense such as, “You wear shoes on your feet." Previous studies found that greater N400 amplitude is seen in higher-ability readers.

On the flip side, P600 becomes much more active when your brain struggles to make sense of a non sequitur or illogical sentence such as, “At school we sing shoes and dance” or “Life is life and fun is fun, but it's all so quiet when the goldfish die.”

In his 1871 novel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll wrote a nonsensical poem called "Jabberwocky" which forces young readers to flex their N400 and P600 brainwaves. Alice herself finds the nonsense of the poem extremely puzzling. 

To add to the brain strain, Lewis Carroll made up many of the words in the poem and they don't actually have any real explicit meaning. Alice sums up her confusion with the gobbledygook of Jabberwocky saying:

"It seems very pretty,' she said when she had finished it, 'but it's rather hard to understand!' (You see she didn't like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) 'Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don't exactly know what they are!"

The University of Illinois research team found that children who were more aerobically fit had a higher amplitude of both N400 and P600 brainwaves when reading logical or nonsensical sentences. The N400 waveform had shorter but more robust bursts in children who were more fit, which suggests that they processed the same information more quickly than their less-fit peers.

These results confirm that children who are in better shape have a greater N400 amplitude and also a larger P600 response for syntactic violations. Such findings suggest that aerobic fitness is linked to a better ability to detect and/or repair syntactic errors.

Conclusion: Aerobic Fitness Can Improve a Child's Academic Achievement

Most importantly, the researchers found that differences in brain activity directly corresponded to higher academic achievement. In a press release Charles Hillman said, "Our study shows that the brain function of higher fit kids is different, in the sense that they appear to be able to better allocate resources in the brain towards aspects of cognition that support reading comprehension.”

Although this study doesn't talk about the importance of flexing both hemispheres of the cerebrum and cerebellum on a daily basis, I have a hunch that enaging the cerebellum through physical activity is somehow linked to improved cognitive function and better language skills. 

More research is needed to identify the specific brain mechanisms that improve cognition in children who are more fit. That said, these new findings add to a growing body of research that finds a strong connection between aerobic fitness, brain power, and improved cognitive function throughout a lifespan.

If you’d like to read more on the benefits of physical fitness in childhood and throughout a lifespan, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

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

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