It’s the holiday season which means kids are off from school and living a more sedentary lifestyle than usual. Recess and P.E. have been replaced by time in front of the T.V. and computer screen. It might not seem like such a big deal for kids to spend a few weeks doing, well, nothing. Yet, many parents will be surprised to find out that even short bouts of physical activity can be good for kids – not just physically but mentally too.
Chuck Hillman, a professor at the University of Illinois, has devoted much of his research career to documenting the power of exercise in altering kids’ brain power. His work clearly shows that even short bouts of physical fitness are related to enhanced mental performance in young children.
In one study, Hillman and his colleague Art Kramer asked a group of children to visit their laboratory on two separate occasions. During one visit, children took part in a short bout of exercise – 20 minutes of walking at a fairly vigorous pace on a treadmill. On the other visit, kids rested, sitting quietly in a chair for twenty minutes. On each visit, after the kids had either rested or exercised (and the heart rates of the kids, when they had exercised, had returned to normal), kids were given a series of cognitive challenges. In one challenge, kids were told to focus on one critical piece of information presented on a computer screen and ignore anything else that popped up. This mental activity is not unlike a situation a child might face when doing homework and the cell phone pings with a text message from a friend. To successfully complete the school work, the child must focus on the academic material and ignore the tempting distraction. The mental challenges in the experiment, in other words, mimicked the focus that kids need to maintain to succeed in school.
Not only did the children perform better on the cognitive tests when they exercised vs. rested, but their brains functioned more fluently after exercise. Neural activity emanating from the frontal and parietal cortex, activity known to reflect our ability to control our attention (something of dire importance in school), was enhanced in kids after they had just exercised relative to when they had been sedentary.
For a long period in human evolution, our ancestors lived like hunter-gatherers. Moving across plains, mountains, and flat lands to hunt game and gather nuts and berries was necessary to our survival. This means that our minds and bodies evolved in the setting of an active lifestyle. Physical activity seems to be programmed into our genes. But the amount of activity young kids get today is usually well below what we are genetically predisposed to do. This is especially true when they are out of school and chained to their computer screens. Indeed, it’s not atypical for a child to participate in zero physical activity outside of school hours. Knowing that the fitness of the body has a big impact on the fitness of the mind and even short bouts of exercise can have positive mental benefits provides us with a clear prescription for children – get them moving.
For more on the tight connection between the physical and mental, check out my book “Choke”
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Hillman, C. H., Pontifex, M. B., Raine, L. B., Castelli, D. M., Hall, E. E., & Kramer, A. F. (2009). The Effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience, 159, 1044-1054.