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Childhood Exercise Linked to Better Cognitive Function, Study Shows

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that regular physical activity in childhood is linked to better impulse control later in life.
  • The activity has to happen during childhood, so parents should make sure their kids get plenty of time to exercise.

When children are physically active, they grow healthy bodies and they feel better emotionally. A new study confirms the link between childhood exercise and future impulse control (“inhibitory control”).

The Kobe University research study found that kids who get plenty of physical activity grow up to have better impulse control than those who do not. The exercise needs to happen in childhood though—physical activity after age 12 did not reveal the same connection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children ages six to 17 get at least 60 minutes of daily exercise, but just 24% of children meet that goal. Knowing that childhood is a vital time for brain development, parents should try to prioritize and encourage physically active lifestyles.

Details of the Study

The study's 214 participants between the ages of 26 and 69 filled out a questionnaire to indicate how much physical exercise they got during childhood.

Next, they took part in a “go/no-go” activity, a test of inhibitory control in which participants respond or don't respond to stimuli based on a specific rule. For example, in a go/no-go activity, the rule may be to press a button if you see a picture of an animal but not to press the button if the picture you see is something other than an animal. A series of pictures may be shown in succession at increasing speed.

Randy McCoy, children's physical education, gymnastics, and motor skill development expert

During infancy and childhood, there are windows of opportunity for brain development that close well before adulthood. And once these developmental windows are closed, there's no going back.

— Randy McCoy, children's physical education, gymnastics, and motor skill development expert

Participants who said they exercised during childhood scored better on the cognitive test than those who said they did not. The results were the same across all age groups—if they got physical exercise as kids, they had a lower false alarm rate than those who didn't, whether they were 26 or 69.

The researchers found that being physically active as an adult does not make any difference in cognitive function. The exercise has to happen during the childhood years to see improved and long-lasting mental fitness later in life.

Prior research has confirmed a link between childhood exercise and improved cognitive function, but this study was the first to identify structural changes in the brain responsible. The scientists used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify which parts of the brain developed differently in those who exercised as kids.

The MRI scans show that people who are active as kids have more segregated brain modules, meaning that the different areas of the brain responsible for different functions are better defined. They also have stronger connections between the brain's left and right sides. The study concludes that these structural aspects are what helped the participants score better on the cognitive test.

The findings suggest that childhood is a unique time in brain development when the brain's growth is greatly impacted by lifestyle. This makes it all the more important to prioritize and encourage physical activity during these years.

How Much Exercise and What Kind?

Like the CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 60 minutes of daily exercise for kids and teens.

The WHO's guidelines by age:

  • Infants (0–1) should be active throughout the day, including 30 minutes of tummy time, and spend no more than an hour in a restraining device like a stroller or baby carrier.
  • Toddlers and Preschoolers (1–4) need a minimum of 180 active minutes daily. Screen time is not recommended for 1-year-olds and for 2- to 4-year-olds, it should be limited to an hour daily.
  • Children and Adolescents (5–17) need 60 minutes of mostly aerobic moderate-to-vigorous daily exercise, as well as vigorous-intensity activity three times per week.

How Parents Can Encourage Kids to Get Enough Exercise

Some tips for making sure your kids stay active:

Model Healthy Exercise Habits

Work out when you can, whether that's going to the gym, taking a bike ride, or doing an ab workout on your living room floor. "Parents are the child's primary role models so active parents can lead to active kids," says Randy McCoy, senior executive of product leadership at The Little Gym.

Reduce or Cut Out Screen Time

Time on a screen is generally sedentary, so pediatrician Nkeiruka Orajiaka, MBBS, MPH, suggests sticking to a daily limit. Having a set time each day for a limited amount of screen time can help prevent kids from constantly asking for it. Alternatively, require your child to do at least 60 minutes of physical activity before giving them their devices.

Engage in Exercise as a Family

Take a family hike, visit the swimming pool, or take a ballroom dancing class together. Make physical exercise a fun time to bond. "Exercise can be easy and should be fun! Help train your kids to think of exercise as just another name for physical activity and play," McCoy suggests. Dr. Orajiaka adds, "Give them creative options and let them choose," noting that children often feel encouraged when parents involve them in decisions.

Get Outside

The outdoors, whether it's the beach, a playground, or an open meadow, invite movement. If the weather makes outdoor time difficult, visiting indoor play areas is another option.

Sign Your Child Up for High-Movement Extracurricular Activities

Swim team, soccer, or dance classes provide plenty of structured moderate-to-high intensity exercise. But don't feel like extracurriculars are a must if you don't have the budget for it. Kids can also get just as much exercise by doing freeplay.

Teach Your Child About the Benefits of Exercise

Kids love to know why things are the way they are and telling them why exercise matters can help get them on board. Explain that staying active makes us feel our best, sharpens our focus, and helps our brains grow.

What This Means for You

Exercise during childhood is essential for optimal brain development. Find ways to get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity into your child's daily routine. You don't have to sign up for expensive sports classes or force your kids to run laps, though. Exercise can be fun and free. The key is to make time for it, even if that means cutting something else out.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical activity facts. Updated April 21, 2020.

  2. Ishihara T, Miyazaki A, Tanaka H, et al. Childhood exercise predicts response inhibition in later life via changes in brain connectivity and structure. NeuroImage. 2021;237:118196. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.118196

  3. Bidzan-Bluma I, Lipowska M. Physical activity and cognitive functioning of children: a systematic reviewInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(4):800. doi:10.3390/ijerph15040800

  4. World Health Organization. Physical activity. Updated November 26, 2020.