Vigorous Exercise Makes Children Smarter
In this New York Times Magazine article, Gretchen Reynolds reports on several studies of the effect of aerobic exercise on children’s brains. In one study at the University of Illinois/Champaign-Urbana, 9-10-year olds who ran on treadmills performed markedly better than sedentary kids on a variety of cognitive challenges, including the ability to filter out unnecessary information and pay attention to relevant cues. When their brains were scanned with an M.R.I., the fittest children had significantly larger basal ganglia, the part of the brain that deals with “executive control” – the ability to crisply coordinate actions and thoughts. The fit and unfit children all had the same socioeconomic background, body-mass index, and other characteristics, so it must have been the vigorous exercise that enlarged that part of their brains.
A second study at the same university grouped 9-10-year olds by exercise level, gave them tests involving complex memory, and did M.R.I. scans. Sure enough, the fittest children did best on the tests and the scans showed that the hippocampus in these children, the part of the brain that deals with complex memory, was enlarged.
An earlier study found that 20 minutes of walking just before a test improved scores, even among students who were unfit or overweight.
And a study conducted among 18-year-olds in Sweden found that better fitness correlated with higher I.Q. scores and more lucrative careers, even among identical twins. There was no correlation between muscle strength and I.Q. It’s clear that aerobic exercise, not strength training, is best for the brain.
The implication for schools is clear, says Georg Kuhn, a professor at the University of Gothenburg: “More aerobic exercise!”