Student Well-Being

Exercise Increases Students’ Cognitive Function, Study Finds

By Bryan Toporek — February 10, 2011 2 min read
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Regular exercise helped previously sedentary, overweight children to perform better on goal-oriented tasks and improved their mathematics ability, according to a recent study from the Georgia Prevention Institute at Georgia Health Sciences University.

In the study, which was published in Health Psychology, 171 children ages 7 to 11 were assigned to separate groups: One group got 20 minutes of aerobic exercise in an after-school program, one group got 40 minutes of exercise, and another group got no exercise. The study found that the more exercise the students got, the more their brain activity increased in the prefrontal cortex, which is a region of the brain associated with complex cognitive behaviors, moderating social behavior, and decisionmaking.

Researchers used the Cognitive Assessment System and Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement III to analyze the effects of exercise on the students, and found that the students who received 40 minutes of exercise per day increased their intelligence scores by an average of 3.8 points. Students who exercised 20 minutes a day noticed a similar, smaller increase in their scores.

“That’s exciting and has important implications,” said the lead author, Dr. Catherine L. Davis, an associate professor of pediatrics at GHSU. “I think it shows that children being sedentary may adversely impact their ability to do mathematics. And that’s very important.”

The original study looked at a three-month period for the after-school exercise program; the researchers are now testing the program for a whole school year to examine any change in the effects.

“I hope these findings will help re-establish physical activity’s important place in the schools in helping kids stay physically well and mentally sharp,” Davis said. “For children to reach their potential, they need to be active.”

This isn’t Davis’ first walk in the park investigating the effects of exercise on obese students. In 2006, she was the lead researcher in a study that found regular exercise can dramatically decrease sleeping problems in overweight children.

In fact, Davis and a few of her colleagues conducted a very similar study to this new one back in 2007. They separated a smaller sample size of overweight children (94 students) into the same three groups (no exercise, 20 minutes of exercise, and 40 minutes of exercise), and discovered similar results: The students who exercised the most demonstrated the highest scores on planning-oriented tasks when tested.

Davis and the GHSU team aren’t the only ones to recently investigate the positive effects of exercise. A study from the February 2011 issue of Harvard Men’s Health Watch, found that exercise has a number of key benefits for humans.

Many forms of exercise reduce stress directly, and by preventing bodily illness, exercise has extra benefits for the mind. Regular physical activity will lower your blood pressure, improve your cholesterol, and reduce your blood sugar. Exercise cuts the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, colon and breast cancers, osteoporosis and fractures, obesity, depression, and even dementia (memory loss). Exercise slows the aging process, increases energy, and prolongs life."

Given the positive impact that these researchers found exercise has for students, is it time for us to revisit that discussion about whether schools should make physical education mandatory?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.