Physically Fit Children Have Bigger Brains

March 29, 2021

Greater Amount of White Matter Linked to Superior Cognitive Performance

An intriguing new Spanish study featured in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports has found that children with better physical fitness have larger brains than overweight or obese children. This discovery was made by a team of researchers from the University of Granada’s Department of Physical Education and Sports, the Sport Health University Research Institute and the Mind, Brain and Behavior Research Center. The researchers from these departments and centers are involved in the ActiveBrains project which focuses on how brain and cognition function can be stimulated by environmental factors, such as exercise. The ActiveBrains project is particularly focused on studying whether physical exercise can influence brain development in early ages.Their recent study involved 110 children, aged 8 to 11 years who participated in randomly assigned exercise groups. Fifty-seven children in the program were considered overweight and the other 53 fit children were used as the control group. The study involved developing an exercise program which consisted of 3-5 after school sessions per week for 90 minutes for a total of 20 weeks. The exercise sessions were predominantly focused on high intensity aerobic exercise although some strength training was also included. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalographic recordings (EEG) to assess the  children’s brain structure and function. The children’s cognitive performance was also measured. Their study revealed that the children who were considered physically fit had more gray matter and white matter in their brains. In general, the fit children had larger brains than the children considered to be overweight and in poor shape. The study also found that having more white matter was also associated with higher cognitive function. This was especially true in the areas of cognitive flexibility and executive function, two areas that are a struggle for children with autism. The study’s authors feel their research makes three different important points. 1) Maintaining optimum levels of physical fitness during childhood is linked to greater overall brain development. 2) Assessing children’s levels of physical fitness is important not only for their general health but also for the health of their brain. 3) Further research is needed to investigate how increasing children’s level of physical fitness may lead to beneficial brain development and cognitive function. 

Original Article

Original Study Abstract

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