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Exercise and brain power for kids- research confirms brain boosting potential

Created by Laura Scott, M.A. |

Scientific studies are measuring how aerobic exercise impacts brain development in children and adolescents. The results are astounding- aerobic exercise supports cognitive functioning; it builds the brain's white matter which enhances neural connections and networks. Let's explore further and learn why movement breaks need to be in your child's classroom plan.

“the importance of regular physical activity to the developing body and mind cannot be overstated”
(Best, 2010, p.19)

 

Yes, you read that correctly: aerobic fitness is important for brain development and functioning, and it is incredibly important for children and throughout adolescence. These are critical stages of brain development and exercise has been shown to benefit brain functioning: memory, logic, problem solving, attention span, concentration, focus, emotion regulation, self-monitoring, impulse control and more. In fact, physical activity can bolster brain health through the lifespan. Exercise matters, especially aerobic exercise!

Watch Dr. John J. Rately's informative TedX talk- "Run, Jump, Learn: How Exercise can Transform our Schools": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBSVZdTQmDs 

 

The basics: physical activity builds gross motor skills and vestibular systems in children


Toddlers and children need to exercise movement patterns to develop their gross motor skills (using the legs, arms, and torso to complete big body movements such as walking, jumping, climbing up the stairs, etc.) and vestibular system (it’s inside the ear and responsible for balance and moving our bodies and knowing where are bodies are in space). One of the best settings for developing these is visiting the good old playground and encouraging your toddler to walk, instead of pushing them nearly everywhere in their stroller. 

Children need to move and practice:

  • push and pull
  • reaching
  • spinning
  • rolling
  • twisting
  • jumping
  • swinging
  • balance on one leg
  • throwing an object / catching an object
  • crawling
  • diving over and under
  • weaving and bobbing side to side
  • running
  • agility: move their bodies forwards, backward, and vertically, laying down and getting up

Children are the champions of movement and some kids have a seemingly endless battery for energy. But why do some kindergartens expect children as young as three to stay seated, keep movements to an absolute minimum, and focus on their teachers during entire lessons?

In Germany, I’ve often heard of young children visiting an occupational therapist / Ergotherapie to help children focus, follow tasks, sit up straight and sit still. This was often supported by the statement “they need to learn to sit still and concentrate in preparation for primary school”.

There is a growing amount of evidence that physical activity is important for developing cognition and its intellectual functions, including concentration and memory. Yet, the use of movement breaks and incorporating opportunities for physical activity during the school day (not only outdoor break times) is not viewed as essential in terms of its brain building potential. 

In some cases, children who are over-reactive and restless among other traits are misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In Canada, there has been a 2.5 fold increase in the use of prescription medications for ADHD treatment in children. In 2019, physicians in Quebec, Canada issued a public statement regarding the possible overprescription of ADHD medication in children, as Quebec was the leading province in ADHD prescriptions.  Perhaps physical activity is a low hanging fruit that can be used to engage children's minds and support learning in schools.

One tool that some schools can implement is ‘movement breaks’. These are designated short bursts of time spent getting the students up and exercising, and then returning to the lesson energized with increased blood flow to the brain and ready for learning.

Did you ever wonder that perhaps children’s propensity for movement might be related to their cognitive development? Have you ever noticed that children are better able to concentrate and have improved behavior after physical activity?

Well here is exciting news- science is showing us empirical evidence that physical activity is important for early cognitive functioning and brain health. Let’s dive further.

 

Highlights of scientific studies reporting on physical activity and brain functioning in children:


Children’s fitness and brain function

A study from Chaddock-Heyman et al. (2018) reported that children 7-9 years of age taking part in a PA program had “increased white matter microstructure” compared to the waitlisted group (p.950). In the brain, white matter is formed in tracts, is essential for information networks, and “play a role in cognition and behavior” (Chaddock-Heymann et al., 2019, p.950). Chaddock-Heyman et al. (2016) previously found that aerobic physical activity in children with higher fitness levels had increased blood flow in the hippocampus of the brain, which is responsible for our memory, learning, and even mood and emotion.

A review from Chaddock-Heyman et al. (2014) reported that “higher fit children also show superior brain function during tasks of cognitive control, better scores on tests of academic achievement, and higher performance on a real-world street crossing task, compared to lower fit and less active children” (p.25). An older review from Best (2010) found that physical activity benefited executive brain functioning (EF)-“chronic participation in aerobic exercise may induce more enduring improvements to EF” (p.7).

 

Intensity matters: heart-pumping aerobic activity is a brain builder

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is key to neuroplasticity, and is “crucial in the development of learning and memory and contribute effectively to better academic performance and brain health” (de Azevedo KPM et al., 2020). Dr. John J. Rately calls BDNF "miracle gro for the brain", as it can help enhance brain signaling and prepare for learning. Sustained aerobic activity produces BDNF, which in turn can improve executive functioning in the brain. In a study from Yong Kyun & Ho Ha (2017), it was found that adolescent participants in moderate to vigorous exercise classes showed improved working memories and increased BDNF, and these improvements were greater than those in the light PA / stretching group.

 

BMI and brain functioning in children

Some studies suggest that there are unhealthy consequences to the brain for children with higher body fat. Studies have shown the more body fat a child has, the more low-grade persistent inflammation is present, which can potentially negatively affect cognitive functioning, academic performance, and brain health (Adelantado-Renau et al., 2019).

Children’s physical fitness and BMI (body mass index) can be an indicator to cognitive functioning and brain health, as Pooja et al. (2015) reported that students with lower BMI scored better on cognitive tests than children with higher BMI. Ronan et al. (2020) reported that children with higher BMI had less cortical thickness in their brain and reduced cognitive functioning than children with lower BMI.

Overweight and obese children are more likely to have lower cognitive functioning across several markers, compared to children within a BMI in normal ranges. These cognitive deficiencies are potentially exacerbated for children who have high BMI and come from poor socioeconomic families (Pooja et al., 2015).

 

Learning with whole-body movements

A review found from Mavilidi et al. (2018) reported that short lessons which incorporated total body movements, or kinesthetic learning into the learning of concepts were associated with higher learning scores and even higher enjoyment than those in control groups.

For example: do you want to teach your child numbers? Grab some sidewalk chalk and draw large numbers on the pavement and ask your child to identify the number called out and jump to draw out the number with the body. Or, play number twister- place paper on the floor with squares, and on the inside write large numbers, and call out actions (Ex. place left hand on 10 and right foot on 100). Even ask the kids to physically make letters using their whole bodies.

 

From school to the professional setting

Perhaps this connection between movement and improved cognitive performance can support businesses to encourage active/walking meetings? Damen et al., (2020) found that some employees felt work conversations were more natural and less hierarchical, and participants reported feeling more relaxed, engaged, and collaborative with a WorkWalk intervention, where a meeting would take place outside on a designated walk.

 

Movement breaks in the classroom

Consider trialing movement breaks into your school’s classroom. Observe how the children behave after the movement breaks. Notice if there are positive effects on overall classroom behaviour. 

How to incorporate classroom movement breaks: 

  • Keep movement breaks short- aim for 2-5 minutes, set a timer or play an entire song (music also boosts exercise enjoyment!)
  • Start each lesson with a movement break to increase blood flow and energize students for learning
  • Halfway through the lesson start another movement break to re-energize and improve the mood of the class- you’re guaranteed to see smiles and giggles during a movement break! Let the children have some fun which will make them more receptive to learning
  • No equipment exercise examples: begin with marching in place and deep breathing while extending arms overhead and return arms to the side, march in place, shoulder shrugs, neck half rolls, step touch, squat, fast feet, jog in place, lateral hops, frog jumps, squat pops, push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, high knees, butt kicks, skipping, pushing a wall, push-ups on a wall, wall sits
  • Put on a movement break song that calls out exercises and have the kids follow-along
  • Find a 5 minute movement break video online and follow-along 
  • Consider your school’s physical education teachers to train each classroom in movement break exercises
  • No physical education teachers? No problem. Ask a motivated teacher who is interested in physical activity to prepare movement break exercises for the teachers
  • For older children, designate 2-3 students to be the leaders and instruct them to plan and execute each movement break for the day or for the entire week
  • Unsure which exercises to instruct? Have no fear- there are many ideas found online. You can purchase a card deck with clear pictures of movement break exercises, or look up exercises online that have simple movement patterns for little kids, write them down or print out the exercises in big letters.
  • Tip: For younger children, have each student pick a movement card and mimic each exercise for the class to follow
  • For older children: ask each student to come up with an exercise or stretch on the spot and go through each exercise together until everyone has participated
  • Find a school currently implementing movement breaks and get in touch for advice/ best practices

Start with small steps. Trial movement breaks into your school’s classroom or establish a new classroom policy to solidify your commitment to healthy school policies that prioritize health and wellness, as well as academic achievement.

Armed with the knowledge that physical activity can help build cognitive abilities in our plastic, malleable brains, we can recontextualize the idea of learning and acknowledge the potential for enhancement through the mechanism of physical movement in children. For more, read the insightful article from Doherty & Miravalles (2019) “Physical Activity and Cognition: Inseparable in the Classroom”.

 

Demonstrate that your school prioritizes health

Demonstrate that your school follows national physical activity recommendations. Schools are important community health promotion settings for physical activity. Children spend the majority of their time there, thus this environment can be a great setting for modeling health-enhancing behaviours, which the children can bring home and share with their parents, family, friends and caregivers.

What’s the value? Students will have improved mood, concentration, emotional regulation, memory and cognitive capacity.

 

Take home lesson: exercise boosts brain functioning in children. Make it a priority for kids to move more. 

References


Adelantado-Renau, M et al. Inflammatory biomarkers and brain health indicators in children with overweight and obesity: The ActiveBrains project, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Volume 81, 2019, pp.588-597. 10.1016/j.bbi.2019.07.020.

Azevedo KPM, de Oliveira VH, Medeiros GCBS, Mata ÁNS, García DÁ, Martínez DG, Leitão JC, Knackfuss MI, Piuvezam G. The Effects of Exercise on BDNF Levels in Adolescents: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Aug 20;17(17):6056. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17176056. PMID: 32825341; PMCID: PMC7503913.

Best, John R. “Effects of Physical Activity on Children's Executive Function: Contributions of Experimental Research on Aerobic Exercise.”Developmental review : DR vol. 30,4 (2010): 331-551. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2010.08.001

Chaddock-Heyman L, Hillman CH, Cohen NJ, and Kramer AF. 2014. III. The importance of physical activity and aerobic fitness for cognitive control and memory in children. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 79(4):25-50

Chaddock-Heyman L, Hillman CH, Cohen NJ, Kramer AF. III. The importance of physical activity and aerobic fitness for cognitive control and memory in children. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 2014 Dec;79(4):25-50. doi: 10.1111/mono.12129. PMID: 25387414.

Chaddock-Heyman, Laura et al. “Aerobic fitness is associated with greater hippocampal cerebral blood flow in children.” Developmental cognitive neuroscience vol. 20 (2016): 52-8. doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2016.07.001

Damen, Ida & Lallemand, Carine & Brankaert, Rens & Brombacher, A.C. & Wesemael, P.J.V. & Vos, Steven. (2020). Understanding Walking Meetings: Drivers and Barriers. 1-14. 10.1145/3313831.3376141.

Jeon, Yong Kyun, and Chang Ho Ha. “The effect of exercise intensity on brain derived neurotrophic factor and memory in adolescents.” Environmental health and preventive medicine vol. 22,1 27. 4 Apr. 2017, doi:10.1186/s12199-017-0643-6

Mavilidi MF, Ruiter M, Schmidt M, Okely AD, Loyens S, Chandler P and Paas F (2018) A Narrative Review of School-Based Physical Activity for Enhancing Cognition and Learning: The Importance of Relevancy and Integration. Front. Psychol. 9:2079. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02079

Meijer, Anna et al. “Cardiovascular fitness and executive functioning in primary school-aged children.” Developmental science vol. 24,2 (2021): e13019. doi:10.1111/desc.13019

Pooja Tandon, Stephanie Thompson, Lyndsey Moran, Liliana Lengua. Body Mass Index Mediates the Effects of Low Income on Preschool Children's Executive Control, with Implications for Behavior and Academics. Child Obes. 2015 Oct 1; 11(5): 569–576. doi: 10.1089/chi.2014.0071

Ronan, Lisa et al. “Childhood Obesity, Cortical Structure, and Executive Function in Healthy Children.” Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991) vol. 30,4 (2020): 2519-2528. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhz257

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