Move for your mind: kids’ fitness has classroom benefits

An exciting new study has uncovered a possible link between aerobic fitness and cortical thinking in young people – and highlighted the danger of increasing academic study hours at the expense of physical activity time.

The US research findings suggest that cardiorespiratory fitness promotes grey matter thinning, a common process of brain development during childhood. According to the findings, children who are aerobically fit generally have significantly thinner grey matter than children who are less aerobically fit.

Charles Hillman, community health professor at the University of Illinois, explained that ‘grey-matter thinning is the sculpting of a fully formed, healthy brain. The theory is that the brain is pruning away unnecessary connections and strengthening useful connections’.

This thinning of the outermost layer of brain cells in the cerebrum is associated with higher performances in disciplines such as mathematics. The study therefore concluded that aerobic fitness has the potential to enhance maths skills by aiding the development of brain structures that contribute to success in the subject.

The research involved 48 children, half of which were classified as highly fit, falling above the 70th percentile for aerobic fitness, and half who had a much lower level of aerobic fitness, falling below the 30th percentile. The children’s brains were imaged using MRI scans and their maths, reading and spelling skills were tested.

The results revealed significant differences in maths skills and cortical brain structure between children who were more aerobically fit and those who were less aerobically fit. Children with a higher level of aerobic fitness displayed thinner grey matter, and consequently performed better in mathematics.

According to Hillman, this insight has come at an important time as opportunities to partake in physical activity during the school day are given less priority due to mandates for increased academic time. Hillman highlights the fact that rates of physical inactivity are rising, suggesting an increased need to promote exercise; ‘schools are the best institutions to implement such health behaviour practices, due to the number of children they reach on a daily basis.’

Source: PLOS ONE