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Exercise Makes Brains Grow Bigger

Exercise might make your kid smarter

Exercise works out the body and the brain.

We all know that kids need exercise.  Regular physical activity is an important weapon in the fight against childhood obesity and kids who exercise are better able to meet physical and emotional challenges. Exercise helps strengthen bones and muscles, decreases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and might even lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

But did you know that exercise could also make your kid smarter?

Two recent studies out of the University of Illinois find that, in addition to bulking up muscles, exercise might actually make a child’s brain bigger.

In the first study, 9 and 10-year-olds were divided into two groups – one deemed fit and the other not so fit.  After running on treadmills for a period of time, they were given cognitive tests to determine their ability to filter out unnecessary information and pay attention to relevant cues.

What they discovered was that not only did the more fit kids do better on the tests, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their brains revealed that they had significantly larger basal ganglia.  The basal ganglia is the part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and coordinating actions and thoughts.

The second experiment involved a different group of 9 and 10-year-old children.  They were also divided by fitness levels and had their brains scanned using MRI technology.   But rather than test cognitive ability, they were given tests that focused on complex memory, an activity associated with the hippocampus structure in the brain’s medial temporal lobes.  As with the earlier experiment, the fittest kids had the larger hippocampi.

The researchers say that because of the way the hippocampus and basal ganglia regions interact in the human brain, increasing their size may “enhance neurocognition”  in kids.  In other words, bigger brains means smarter kids.

But as science continues to uncover evidence of the connection between exercise and academic performance, educators continue to ignore it. Perhaps this study, and others like it, will help to convince them that recess is an important part of a good education and should be expanded, not canceled in favor of more classroom time.

Image: bradleypjohnson/Flickr

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