Go for a run!

Phys Ed: Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter?

From the NY Times

In an experiment published last month, researchers recruited schoolchildren, ages 9 and 10, who lived near the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois and asked them to run on a treadmill. The researchers were hoping to learn more about how fitness affects the immature human brain. Animal studies had already established that, when given access to running wheels, baby rodents bulked up their brains, enlarging certain areas and subsequently outperforming sedentary pups on rodent intelligence tests. But studies of the effect of exercise on the actual shape and function of children’s brains had not yet been tried.
So the researchers sorted the children, based on their treadmill runs, into highest-, lowest- and median-fit categories. Only the most- and least-fit groups continued in the study (to provide the greatest contrast). Both groups completed a series of cognitive challenges involving watching directional arrows on a computer screen and pushing certain keys in order to test how well the children filter out unnecessary information and attend to relevant cues. Finally, the children’s brains were scanned, using magnetic resonance imaging technology to measure the volume of specific areas.
Previous studies found that fitter kids generally scored better on such tests. And in this case, too, those children performed better on the tests. But the M.R.I.’s provided a clearer picture of how it might work. They showed that fit children had significantly larger basal ganglia, a key part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and “executive control,” or the ability to coordinate actions and thoughts crisply. Since both groups of children had similar socioeconomic backgrounds, body mass index and other variables, the researchers concluded that being fit had enlarged that portion of their brains.
Meanwhile, in a separate, newly completed study by many of the same researchers at the University of Illinois, a second group of 9- and 10-year-old children were also categorized by fitness levels and had their brains scanned, but they completed different tests, this time focusing on complex memory. Such thinking is associated with activity in the hippocampus, a structure in the brain’s medial temporal lobes. Sure enough, the M.R.I. scans revealed that the fittest children had heftier hippocampi.
The two studies did not directly overlap, but the researchers, in their separate reports, noted that the hippocampus and basal ganglia regions interact in the human brain, structurally and functionally. Together they allow some of the most intricate thinking. If exercise is responsible for increasing the size of these regions and strengthening the connection between them, being fit may “enhance neurocognition” in young people, the authors concluded.
These findings arrive at an important time. For budgetary and administrative reasons, school boards are curtailing physical education, while on their own, children grow increasingly sluggish. Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that roughly a quarter of children participate in zero physical activity outside of school.
At the same time, evidence accumulates about the positive impact of even small amounts of aerobic activity. Past studies from the University of Illinois found that “just 20 minutes of walking” before a test raised children’s scores, even if the children were otherwise unfit or overweight, says Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology at the university and the senior author of many of the recent studies.
But it’s the neurological impact of sustained aerobic fitness in young people that is especially compelling. A memorable years-long Swedish study published last year found that, among more than a million 18-year-old boys who joined the army, better fitness was correlated with higher I.Q.’s, even among identical twins. The fitter the twin, the higher his I.Q. The fittest of them were also more likely to go on to lucrative careers than the least fit, rendering them less likely, you would hope, to live in their parents’ basements. No correlation was found between muscular strength and I.Q. scores. There’s no evidence that exercise leads to a higher I.Q., but the researchers suspect that aerobic exercise, not strength training, produces specific growth factors and proteins that stimulate the brain, said Georg Kuhn, a professor at the University of Gothenburg and the senior author of the study.
But for now, the takeaway is clear. “More aerobic exercise” for young people, Mr. Kuhn said. Mr. Hillman agreed. So get kids moving, he added, and preferably away from their Wiis. A still-unpublished study from his lab compared the cognitive impact in young people of 20 minutes of running on a treadmill with 20 minutes of playing sports-style video games at a similar intensity. Running improved test scores immediately afterward. Playing video games did not.

How should we (teachers and students) use this information?


  1. It's interesting that you should post this now, Mr. Cluver, because I just read a book from the library about the importance of physical movement in correlation to studying. It was based on studies that the author conducted on mentally disabled children she was working with. Amazingly, the children improved and were able to compete with their same age group after a series of exercises she called "Brain Gym". Basically, she put the kids through their paces WHILE they were studying. They ALWAYS kept some part of their body moving. I think that during class, cased on the information in this article and the book I read, we should have something to do with our hands. Taking short breaks in between sessions of studying is also beneficial. I have found that spinning a pen helps me concentrate better during class (if I don't drop it and cause confusion...). Teachers should plan more hands-on activities, or incorporate studying with physical exercise/games. Basically: We just have to find some logical way to fit in exercising with studying.

  2. I think we should have more PE classes so we can all be fitter!

  3. First of all... U OF I!!!!!! OH YEA! Sorry I had to do that. Ahem
    Well I am thrilled, of course. I love jumping and flipping and twirling and running (not in track). If I see people playing on a court I immediately have a temptation to play with them, and plus I love dancing. As students, we should spend more of our after-school time in sports or extracirricular activities, rather than stuffing our noses in books and wasting time and money on cram schools. For teachers, or administrators to be more exact, 2 hours of PE per week isn't enough. We had PE everyday at my school back in the states. Well I guess they kinda needed it... but you get my point.

  4. I think the school should make the break longer. Or have more PE class.so students can have more time to relax after the class. In Asian countries, the government let student study too much. So almost very people in Asian wear classes. One of the problem is study too much. The other one is Asian people do not exercise. Sometimes people want to exercise, but they can not. It is because of the pressure from school. So I really think that people should have more exercise. It can really help people to refresh our brain.

  5. There should be more PE classes. PE should be moved to 1st periods, then we'll be more concentrated for classes after that.

  6. everybody said what i was gonna say... so more PE classes would be awesome

  7. First especially at our school we have a lot of problems. It is (sorry) stupid that the students have to come at 7:40. Our brain can not pick up information during this time. We aren't ready and all what the teachers are saying we fergot. Our break system is also bad. Why we have just 10 minutes break between the classes and then 1 hour and 20 minutes. We should devided the nap time, because we don't need it. We are playing with Iphone during this time. Why we have to stay at school till 4:10. We have to get a break. Actually the first and the last classes are useless for our brain.
    And sorry students but actually nobody of you show enthusiasm for P.E. Nobody is fighting. Nobody trys to go to his limit. In my opinion you use P.E. for talking and relaxing.

    veni, vidi, respondi

  8. The amount of exercise we do at school are not enough. I mean the teams and the amount of time we spent on sports. Being sporty isn't just meaning cool in some people's minds but also being healthy. As the article mentioned, it is important to be fit to perform well on tests. We do lots of intense sport but little aerobic exercise such as jogging or swimming...etc. We don't need intense exercise because it will become a burden to our bodies. From my experience, fitness is trained by doing long and aerobic exercising. I would suggest teachers to encourage students to jog more and to test 1 mile run for all students to their fitness.
    Of course we will do anything to be able to do better on tests, but exercising has to become a part of a habit, instead of something you do for a short term just to increase your score.

  9. so that is why megan spins her pencil all the time during class