*The following is excerpted from an online article from the Coloradoan.
Regular daily exercise appears to improve children’s attention and multitasking skills, according to a new study.
The researchers randomly assigned 221 children, ages 7 to 9, to either the after-school program or a wait-list for the program. The after-school program occurred for nearly all of the school year (150 days). Over two hours, physical activity alternated with rest periods, resulting in about 70 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every weekday, said lead researcher, Charles Hillman.
Elementary school-age students who participated in an after-school program with plenty of physical activity showed greater improvements in several areas of so-called “executive function” than similar students who did not participate. Executive function refers to a range of mental or “cognitive” skills that include memory, focus, attention, and the ability to switch back and forth between tasks.
The children participating in the study took tests to measure their “inhibition” and their “cognitive flexibility,” which is basically their ability to switch between different tasks successfully, such as reading something and then answering questions about that reading.
Although children in both the after-school program and the wait-list group experienced improvements in physical fitness, inhibition and cognitive flexibility, the after-school program participants made bigger gains in all three areas.
The program participants also showed improvements in attention that were not seen in the wait-list group, and they had smaller gains in body mass index (BMI) than the wait-list students. BMI is a measurement of body fat based on height and weight.
Because the study directly compared two similar groups of children, the findings support the idea that the physical activity actually caused the brain improvements, though it’s less clear how physical activity improves thinking skills, the experts said.
The study was published in the journal Pediatrics.