We know that childhood obesity in America is a major issue these days. It is important that proper nutrition and exercise are introduced early into a child’s life, not only for their current well-being but because early habits set a child up for success or struggle as an adult. But there’s another reason why kids should get up and moving — fitness can affect mental capacity.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana studied the correlation between fitness and the immature human brain. The study first measured the selected children’s fitness level and then took the highest and the lowest performing groups and asked them to complete cognitive challenges to determine if they could ignore irrelevant information and stay on task. As anticipated, the fitter group performed better.
An op-ed in the New York Times by Gretchen Reynolds entitled “Phys Ed: Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter?” described what researchers discovered after completing MRIs on the participating children:
“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.”
The article also shared other findings from similar studies done out of the University of Illinois. One of these studies showed that as little as 20 minutes of walking prior to a test improved scores for children. Another study suggested that there might be a link between fitness level and memory.
TIME magazine heralded the importance of exercise for maintaining brain capacity with the article, “Exercise Trumps Brain Games in Keeping Our Minds Intact.” The post cited research out of the University of Edinburgh, which demonstrated less brain shrinkage and other signs of aging of the brain in people who frequently exercised.
Physical education classes and after-school sports are more essential than ever. Being unhealthy at an early age can hinder far more than physical development.