If you need a reason to encourage your kids to get outside, here’s a good one: Children who get at least an hour of physical activity every day after school are better able to pay attention, avoid distraction and switch between cognitive tasks. And it’s fun.
Researchers placed 221 children aged 7-9 in either a Fitness Improves Thinking in Kids (FITKids) after school program or a wait-list control group. The results of the study not only provide causal evidence for the beneficial effects of physical activity (PA) on cognitive and brain health,” according to study leader and University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Charles Hillman, “but they warrant modification of contemporary educational policies and practices, and indicate that youth should receive more daily PA opportunities.”
Hillman and colleagues begin their study, published in the current issue of Pediatrics, with a reminder of the gravity of the situation: “The pandemic of physical inactivity is a serious threat to global public health accounting for ~10% of all premature deaths from noncommunicable diseases.” The negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle in adults are well known. But such detrimental effects have been understudied in children.
Researchers were particularly interested in how physical activity in children affected executive control, “which consists of inhibition (resisting distractions or habits to maintain focus), working memory (mentally holding and manipulating information), and cognitive flexibility (multitasking).”
As part of the study, the children randomly assigned to the FITKids exercise group wore heart-rate monitors and pedometers during 70 minute sessions of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, which included an average of 4,500 steps. That was followed by a healthy snack and then another 45-55 minutes of a low organization skill game. The FITKids program occurred during 150 out of 170 school days.
Physical fitness improved six percent for those in the FITKids program, and less than one percent for subjects in the control group. Children in the exercise group demonstrated substantial increases in “attentional inhibition,” a measure of their ability to block out distractions and focus on the task at hand, and “cognitive flexibility,” which involves switching between intellectual tasks while maintaining speed and accuracy.
“Kids in the intervention group improved two-fold compared to the wait-list kids in terms of their accuracy on cognitive tasks, according to Hillman. “Given that no significant differences were observed for children assigned to the wait-list control, the key implication from this study is that participating in a daily, afterschool PA program enhances executive control.”