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How Staying Physically Fit May Help Kids’ Executive Functions

Physical fitness, cognitive flexibility, and better grades may go hand in hand.

Key points

  • Regular aerobic activity is good for your brain; exercise can boost gray matter volume, optimize white matter functional connectivity, and may prevent brain shrinkage.
  • Previous neuroscience research suggests that aerobically fit children have better white matter integrity.
  • A new study identifies an association between children's cardiorespiratory fitness, executive functions, and academic performance.
naum/Shutterstock
Source: naum/Shutterstock

New research into the relationship between higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness and executive functions among school-age children suggests that kids who are physically fit tend to have more cognitive flexibility than their less-fit peers.

These findings ( Yangüez et al., 2021 ) by an international team led by researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) were recently published online ahead of print in the peer-reviewed journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise .

First author Marc Yangüez and co-authors speculate that the correlation between academic performance and cardiorespiratory fitness may ultimately be mediated by changes in cognitive flexibility.

"The aim of this study was to investigate the indirect effects of cardiorespiratory fitness on scholastic performance through executive functions," the authors explain in the paper's abstract. "More precisely, we examined the contribution of the different domains of executive functions, and whether this relationship was specific to certain school topics."

Notably, Charles Hillman , who has been researching the brain-based link between children's cardiorespiratory fitness, academic performance, and executive functions for decades, is a co-author of this recent UNIGE study. Hillman is currently a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston. During his time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Beckman Institute, he conducted pioneering research ( Chaddock-Heyman et al., 2014 ) into the link between children's aerobic fitness and their brains' white matter integrity with the legendary Arthur Kramer and Laura Chaddock-Heyman . (See " Why Is Physical Activity So Good for Your Brain? ")

Executive Functions Can Be Broken Down Into 3 Categories

For this study, Yangüez and his Geneva-based colleagues recruited 193 pupils (aged 8-12) from eight different schools. In the first phase of this research, children's cardiorespiratory fitness was measured using the "shuttle run test," which involves running back and forth (at an increasingly fast pace) between two lines placed 20 meters apart. The second phase of the study measured three facets of executive function: cognitive flexibility, inhibition, and working memory.

In a March 30 news release , Yangüez explains the researchers' three-pronged approach to studying executive functions:

"The first is inhibition, i.e., our ability to inhibit intrusive or irrelevant behavior or thoughts. The second is cognitive flexibility, which is often called multitasking and refers to our ability to flexibly move between tasks or responses based on task demands. Finally, the third is working memory, which is our ability to maintain information in our minds and manipulate it."

In addition to identifying a correlation between cardiorespiratory fitness and academic performance, the researchers also reported a link between varying degrees of cardiorespiratory fitness and specific aspects of a student's executive functions. Exploring whether cardiorespiratory fitness affects academic performance directly or indirectly via someone's executive functions was a central focus of this research.

The Role of Cognitive Flexibility

The results, the researchers write, "show the role that executive functions play in understanding the relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and scholastic performance. Importantly, not all executive function domains contributed equally, since cognitive flexibility played a leading role in this wide age range." As the authors explain: "Although executive functions correlated with school grades, cognitive flexibility drove the indirect effect when all executive functions domains were simultaneously taken into account."

"By decomposing these effects via a statistical mediation model, we established that the link between cardiorespiratory fitness and academic performance was indirect," co-author Julien Chanal said in the news release. "In fact, physical fitness is related to better executive functions, and it is indeed executive functions that influence school performance, more specifically cognitive flexibility."

This study challenges the notion that forcing children to spend more time sitting at their desks, cramming their heads full of knowledge—at the expense of taking breaks to play outside or participate in organized cardiorespiratory activities—is necessarily best for students' academic performance.

"By demonstrating the link between physical capacities, such as cardiorespiratory capacity, cognitive abilities and grades, it underlines the importance of not reducing physical activity (and in particular physical education hours) in favor of other subjects, as this could ultimately have a negative impact on the development of the child as a whole," Yangüez concludes.

References

Marc Yangüez, Benoit Bediou, Charles H. Hillman, Daphne Bavelier, Julien Chanal. "The Indirect Role of Executive Functions on the Relationship between Cardiorespiratory Fitness and School Grades." Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (Published online ahead of print: February 18, 2021) DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002630

Laura Chaddock-Heyman, Kirk I. Erickson, Joseph L. Holtrop, Michelle W. Voss, Matthew B. Pontifex, Lauren B. Raine, Charles H. Hillman, Arthur F. Kramer. "Aerobic Fitness Is Associated With Greater White Matter Integrity in Children." Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (First published: August 19, 2014) DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00584

Emma Norris, Tommy van Steen, Artur Direito, Emmanuel Stamatakis. "Physically Active Lessons in Schools and Their Impact on Physical Activity, Educational, Health and Cognition Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis." British Journal of Sports Medicine (First published: October 16, 2019) DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-100502

Esteban-Cornejo, Irene, Cristina Cadenas-Sanchez, Oren Contreras-Rodriguez, Juan Verdejo-Roman, Jose Mora-Gonzalez, Jairo H. Migueles, Pontus Henriksson, Catherine L. Davis, Antonio Verdejo-Garcia, Andrés Catena, Francisco B. Ortega. "A Whole Brain Volumetric Approach in Overweight/Obese Children: Examining the Association With Different Physical Fitness Components and Academic Performance. the ActiveBrains Project." NeuroImage (First published: August 05, 2017) DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.08.011

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