Exercise benefits overweight kids’ mental health
Regular exercise is not just good for an overweight child’s physical health, it also improves their ability to think, plan and do maths, the results of a new study indicate.
US researchers looked at 171 overweight children who were aged between seven and 11. All of the children were inactive at the start of the study, but some then took up exercise for the purpose of the study.
Children in the exercise program undertook vigorous activity, including running and skipping.
All of the participants underwent cognitive functioning tests, which measured abilities such as academic skills, reading and maths skills. Some of the children also had MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) carried out to assess increased or decreased areas of brain activity.
The study found that regular exercise improved the ability of previously inactive overweight children to think and plan, as well as do maths.
The MRIs showed that those who exercised experienced increased brain activity in the prefrontal cortex – an area associated with complex thinking, decision making and correct social behavior – and decreased activity in an area of the brain that sits behind it.
Furthermore, the more a child exercised, the better the result. Intelligence scores increased an average of 3.8 points in those exercising 40 minutes per day after school for three months, with a smaller benefit in those exercising 20 minutes a day.
Activity in the part of the brain responsible for so-called executive functioning also increased in children who exercised. Executive functioning refers to a person’s ability to manage daily tasks through planning and self-management. It includes the ability to stay focused on tasks and the ability to cope with changes in routine.
Similar improvements were seen in maths skills, although no improvements were found in reading skill.
According to the researchers from Georgia Health Sciences University, the improvement in maths abilities was ‘remarkable’, since no maths lessons were given. This suggests longer interventions could produce even better results, they said.
They suggested that cognitive improvements were the likely result of brain stimulation that came from movement, rather than resulting cardiovascular improvements, such as increased blood and oxygen supplies.
They also suggested that such vigorous physical activity promotes development of brain systems that underlie cognition and behavior. Studies in older adults have already shown exercise benefits the brain and this study extends that science to children and their ability to learn in school.
“I hope these findings will help re-establish physical activity’s important place in schools in helping kids stay physically well and mentally sharp. For children to reach their potential, they need to be active,” said lead researcher, Dr Catherine Davis.
Details of these findings are published in Health Psychology.