Researchers put a small group of children ages 9 and 10 to the test both mentally, with standardized math and reading exams, and physically, testing their endurance on a treadmill. They also scanned their brains using MRI and found that the children who could run for longer periods of time on the treadmill had thinner sections of gray matter in the front of their brains, which actually signifies more brain maturation, than those with lower stamina. These children also ran laps around their less fit peers in the math test.
“It’s part of a natural process that the brain goes through a period of thinning during adolescence (as) brain connections that are deemed not necessary are thinned out. (Fit) kids may be further along in this maturation process,” said Charles H. Hillman, professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Hillman is one of the authors of the study, which was published in August in the online journal PLOS ONE.
The brain’s frontal cortex is where executive functioning happens. It’s where the mind’s file cabinet lives, where information can be stored and accessed easily in the process of learning (working memory) without losing attention to the academic task at hand. Immaturity, or improper development, of the frontal cortex can lead to weaknesses in cognitive organization and attentiveness, which makes learning efficiently more difficult for students.
The authors say the timing of the study couldn’t be better, as so many children nowadays struggle to get the recommended 60 minutes of exercise every day:
The present study arrives at an important time. Physical activity opportunities during the school day are being reduced or eliminated in response to mandates for increased academic classroom time, and rising rates of physical inactivity. Here we provide additional evidence that increased aerobic fitness levels may enhance cognitive and brain plasticity, with potentially significant outcomes related to scholastic achievement.