The Athlete's Way

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Why Does Aerobic Activity Improve Cognitive Function?

Aerobic activity boosts cognitive function in children and adolescents.

A researcher from Dartmouth College has found that just 12 minutes of aerobic exercise improves cognitive function in children and adolescents. Interestingly, low-income children and adolescents saw the greatest improvement to both selective visual attention and reading comprehension after bouts of aerobic activity. Selective visual attention is the ability to remain visually focused on something despite distractions.

Michele Tine, the author of the study, is Assistant Professor of education and principal investigator in the Poverty and Learning Lab at Dartmouth. I had the opportunity to speak with Michele about her fascinating research and some possible explanations as to why low-income children saw a bigger jump in academic performance than their higher-income peers after 12 minutes of aerobic exercise.

The new study, “Acute Aerobic Exercise: An Intervention for the Selective Visual Attention and Reading Comprehension of Low-Income Adolescents” was published in the June 2014 volume of Frontiers in Psychology.

What Is the Link Between: Low-Income, Aerobic Activity, and Cognitive Function?

The 2014 study of adolescents in the 6th and 7th grades is a follow-up to another study that Tine published in 2012. In each study, Tine found that both low-income children and adolescents dramatically improved on tests for cognitive function following physical activity, but that more privileged students saw smaller gains.

When Tine was a 5th grade teacher in a low-socioeconomic urban district she noticed that students from lower-income districts responded differently to learning than students she had taught from middle- and high-socioeconomic areas. These observations inspired her current research on various ways that socioeconomic status impacts cognitive processes associated with academic achievement.

A unique aspect of Michele Tine’s research is that she is exploring the differences between growing up in a rural vs. urban low-income environment and how this demographic impacts working memory and executive function. Future studies by Tine will delve deeper into the specifics of how a rural or urban environment can impact the cognitive development and academic performance of low-income students.

The Chronic Stress of Poverty Can Impact Cognitive Function

In our conversation, Michele Tine and I spoke about the different neurobiological responses to "eustress” (good stress) and “distress” (bad stress). Michele believes that the higher levels of stress caused by living in poverty make lower-income children more responsive to the cognitive benefits of aerobic exercise.

In a previous Psychology Today blog post, “Social Disadvantage Creates Genetic Wear and Tear,” I write about the disturbing fact that the biological weathering effects of chronic stress can be seen at an “epigenetic” level by the age of 9. 

Michele Tine touches on the potential cognitive impact of bad stress saying, "Low-income individuals experience more stress than high-income individuals, and stress impacts the same physiological systems that acute aerobic exercise activates. Physiological measures were beyond the scope of this study, but low-income participants did report experiencing more stress. Alternatively, it is possible that low-income individuals improved more simply because they had more room to improve."

Aerobic activity reduces the biological markers for stress. Physical activity pumps more blood and oxygen to the brain which improves cognitive function. Exercise also stimulates the release of BDNF and Irisin which boost neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons) and improve brain connectivity through neuroplasticity. Together these factors all lead to better cognitive function.

Aerobic exercise triggers the benefits of eustress by unleashing a cascade of hormones and neurochemicals that build up to prepare us for fight-or-flight. Without the release caused by physical activity, elevated levels of “the stress hormone” cortisol and adrenaline can wreak havoc on the mind, body, and brain. The eustress of exercise puts cortisol and adrenaline to work in a positive way.

A June 2014 study from Johns Hopkins titled, "Fight-Or-Flight Chemical Prepares Cells to Shift the Brain From Subdued to Alert State" found that the release of adrenaline in preparation for fight-or-flight starts a chain reaction within the brain that improves focus by activating astrocyte cells.

Although Tine focuses primarily on cortisol and BDNF as possible explanations for improved cognitive function caused by exercise, the new findings from Johns Hopkins on astrocyte activation offer an exciting new clue as to why 12 minutes of aerobic exercise improves selective visual attention in children and adolescents. 

Conclusion: Aerobic Activity Improves Academic Performance

Most teachers on the front lines realize that PE class and regular physical activity improve classroom focus, comprehension, social engagement, and academic performance. Unfortunately, many education policy makers have been out of touch with the backlash of cutting funding for physical activity and the arts while empasizing standardized test scores and data collection by teachers. 

The irony of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and No Child Left Behind is that by forcing children to sit still and cram for standardized tests the odds of them doing well on a standardized exam actually decrease—especially if they are growing up in a low-income district. Unfortunately, test scores reveal that the current income-achievement gap is growing ever wider.

Luckily, some policy makers are beginning to take notice and reassess the implentation of Common Core. In June of 2014 the AASA (American Association of School Administrators) issued a report calling for policy makers and educators to "slow down and get it right" before making dramatic changes to teaching practices based on the CCSS. 

Michele Tine strongly advocates that all schools—especially those serving low-income populations—strive to incorporate brief bouts of exercise into students' daily schedules. Her research at Dartmouth reinforces the value of 12 minutes of aerobic exercise as a simple way to improve attention and academic achievement.

That said, it is important that exercise not be viewed as a draconian type of torture. All animals seek pleasure and avoid pain. If aerobic exercise is perceived as drudgery people of all ages tend to avoid it. Therefore, I strongly believe that whenever aerobic exercise is included in the school day it should be framed as fun, playful, and rewarding.

As educators, parents, and policy makers it's imperative that we incorporate practical and affordable interventions—like physical activity—into the daily lives of children and adolescents to optimize their cognitive processes. Structured and unstructured periods of aerobic activity in schools can help to give Americans from all socioeconomic strata an equal opportunity to achieve a lifetime of personal bests.

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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