Ursula Carlson: Exercise shows benefit to children’s bodies and brains
I have an old photograph of my mother at age 32 or 33, perhaps, leading a group of children in calisthenics at our refugee camp in Königsbronn, Germany. The year may have been 1946 or ’47. They look like a motley group, Mother with her hair tied up in a bandanna, wearing what looks like big, baggy pants. I can see the barracks we slept in, in the background, but it’s here on the big field where Mother is doing her best to encourage physical fitness among all the sickly, half starving children.
If she still were alive, I would tell her about the recent studies conducted at the University of Illinois. Curious about how fitness affects the “immature” human brain, researchers recruited schoolchildren ages
9 and 10 to run on a treadmill. (Studies on baby rodents have already established that those who have access to running wheels “bulk up” their brains and outperform sedentary pups on rodent intelligence tests.)
Sure enough, those children who demonstrated the greatest “fitness” on the treadmill runs also did best on a series of cognitive tests that involved filtering out unnecessary information and paying attention to relevant cues. Afterward, the children’s brains were scanned, using magnetic resonance imaging technology to measure the volume of specific areas in the brain.
The MRIs showed that fit children had significantly larger basal ganglia, a key part of the brain that helps in maintaining attention and “executive control” (coordinate actions and thoughts crisply).
Another study on 9- and 10-year-olds, who were also categorized according to fitness, completed tests that focused on complex memory, and once again the most physically fit children scored higher. The MRIs showed that the hippocampus, which is associated with this kind of thinking, was indeed heftier in the fittest children.
The researchers who wrote the report on these two studies point out that together the basal ganglia and hippocampus regions interact to allow for some of the most intricate thinking humans do. So, if exercise is responsible for increasing the size of these regions and strengthening the connection between them, being fit may “enhance neurocognition” in young people.
Other studies have shown that even 20 minutes of exercise before a test can raise children’s scores, even if the children are otherwise unfit. A years-long study in Sweden also has found that aerobic exercise, unlike strength training, was correlated with higher IQs in young people.
But don’t think that playing Wii is the equivalent of “real” exercise. It’s not, according to Charles Hillman, professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois. Playing video games did not improve test scores, whereas running did.
• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.