According to a new study, children who participated in a physical activity program after school for nine months did better on thinking related tasks than kids who did not take part in the program. Participants also performed better on tasks that tested their ability to block out distractions, focus and multi-task, skills they will need throughout their lives.
The brain goes through many changes and developments during childhood. Now it seems that research is showing that an active lifestyle during these critical growing years may help to protect brain health throughout the person’s entire lifetime. This means that cutting back on physically active times of the day, like recess and or gym, may have unintended health consequences. Current guidelines in the U.S. and Europe recommend at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day for kids and teens.
For this study, the researchers randomly assigned 221 kids in Illinois, all between ages seven and nine, to a waitlist or an after-school program called FITKids, which was offered for 150 days of the school year. The FITKids program included two hours of physical activity per session. This was broken down into 70 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity, followed by a snack and rest and ending with another 45 minutes of organizational games centered on a skill, like soccer or tag.
Both the FITKids and the waitlist groups improved in fitness over the study period. However, the FITKids group improved more, with a six percent increase in aerobic ability when compared to one percent in the waitlist group. Interestingly, the physical activity group improved in accuracy and multi-tasking significantly more than the waitlist group. Further, by the end of the study, only the FITKids group showed an increase in the amount of attention they were able to give to tasks.
The researchers aren’t sure that physical activity by itself led to improved brain health, because the FITKids participants may have also benefited from interacting with other children and the general education inherent in the program.
Physical activity keeps the heart rate up and simultaneously works the brain in unique ways. In some sports, for example, an athlete’s brain must predict where the ball is going and where their teammates may be.
All health experts agree that kids need to be physically active for about an hour every day. Parents who don’t have access to an after-school program could take their kids to a park or the YMCA or some other safe environment where their kids can be physically active.