What’s a helpful thing to say if you want your child to do better in school? Maybe this: “Go outside and play.”
Physical activity does kids’ brains powerful good, according to new research. The more active and lean a school-age child is, the better his or her brainpower.
In fact, physical activity seems to have a double-whammy benefit: First, being active itself seems to improve the ability to acquire and use knowledge. Second, activity, as we all know, is a big factor in having a healthy weight. In comparing fitness and weight, Georgia researchers were surprised to discover the extent to which both matter.
Here’s what the study showed
The kids who were both most lean and most active scored best on cognitive tests, better than either their lean inactive peers or overweight inactive children, according to the study in the journal Pediatric Exercise Science.Researchers looked at about 100 kids, ages 7 to 11. The first 45 were all of normal weight. About half of these were considered physically active (according to their participation in organized activities like swimming, dance, gymnastics, and soccer, along with their parents’ and their own reports of this activity). The other half of the normal-weight kids weren’t so active. These groups were compared with one another and with another 45 kids who were inactive and overweight. Otherwise, all the kids were matched as closely as possible in terms of gender, race, their parents’ marital status, and other socioeconomic factors.
As you might expect, the 24 normal-weight, physically active kids had lower body mass index (BMI), less fat, and a lower resting heart rate than the children who were overweight and inactive. The active kids also scored higher on a standard mental test. For example, in these thinking skills:
- They scored nine points higher on planning (figuring out a strategy and carrying it out, using knowledge)
- They scored eight points higher for their ability to pay attention— and 12 points higher when weight alone was looked at.
Numbers like those could be the difference between a child being average in terms of his cognitive function and at the top end of the normal range, according to Catherine Davis, clinical health psychologist at the Georgia Prevention Institute at the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University.
The researchers aren’t sure what explains these differences in overweight kids—possibly excess inflammation, hormones, or another factor. But they’re pretty certain that the culprit is body fat, not extra muscle mass. So an athlete with great muscle tone who weighs the same as an inactive kid wouldn’t be likely to show the same cognitive disadvantages.
What does all this mean at your house?
- Take advantage of the fact that your child is still growing. If your child is trending heavier now, Davis says that being in the growing years can make it easier to get leaner. “If they can cut some of the empty calories out of their diet and pick up the pace on physical activity, they may grow into their weight,” she says.
- Know that progress truly “adds up.” Here’s an incentive to get started making lifestyle changes: One of Davis’s earlier studies found that when overweight kids start to exercise, even their math ability improves.
- Pick active after-school programs. After sitting down most of the day, kids tend to welcome movement—especially before (more) sitting down to homework. Kids who get 40 minutes of exercise after school every day show more improvement on cognitive tests than kids who just get 20 minutes a day (like gym class), research has shown. What’s more, in a study comparing sedentary after-school programs and active ones, fMRI brain studies of kids who did the latter showed they had more activity in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, which is linked to complex thinking, decision making, and appropriate social behavior.
- Make fitness a family-time thing. Bike together, take family after-dinner walks, or join your local Y for free swims. That’s two benefits in one: family fun plus a fitter child. Three benefits, actually—because you’ll get fitter (and maybe smarter) too.