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Effects of Exercise on Executive Functioning in Children

Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, there have been long-standing beliefs that physical activity is related to intellectual ability and functioning. Researchers have been looking at the effects of exercise on cognitive functioning since the 1950’s. A historical overview done in 1986 by Kirkendall (1986) evidenced a decline in the 70’s and 80’s of active research being done on children’s cognitive functioning and physical activity. In Kirkendall’s opinion, the decline reflects a shift in research interest towards the physical benefits of exercise, and a divergence from studying the cognitive benefits.

Young chidren running in nature

Although, the health and wellness movement of the 1980’s reignited a surge of interest in physical activity on brain processes because of the emergence of academic degree programs specializing in exercise psychology. Over the past two decades, a considerable amount of literature emerged that focused on the impact of physical activity on aging. Less research has been conducted focusing on children’s physical activity and cognitive functioning and mental development. Several recent experiments conducted both with adult humans and animals (Colcombe et al. 2004a, b; Pereira et al. 2007) evidence that exercise performed on a regular basis for several weeks does indeed alter brain functions that underlie cognition and behavior.

Contemporary cognitive theory stresses that physical activity affects “executive functioning” of which there are many tasks used to examine. Functions used in these studies are coded in terms of four specific types of mental processes: “executive function”; which involves scheduling, response inhibition, planning, and working memory; “controlled processing”, which requires the automatization of reaction sequences (Chodzko-Zajko and Moore, 1994), and “visuospatial processing, which involves perceptual learning (Stones and Clifford, 1978). These areas of cognitive processes which work together to affect “executive functioning” are highly involved in creative and divergent thinking processes as well.

Executive functions are involved in planning and selecting strategies that organize goal-directed actions (Das et al. 1994) and stand apart from processes involved in basic information processing; such as encoding, stimulus evaluation, response selection, and response execution (Kramer et al. 1999a, b). A consensus exists in the cognitive science field today that executive functioning is not a unitary process but rather some more elemental underlying processes. Let’s take a look at some studies that directly evidence that exercise and physical activity has a direct effect on children’s cognitive performance.

Focusing less on IQ and overall intelligence, and more on children’s cognitive processing (such as that underlying executive functioning), cognitive scientists usually employ theory-based tests and attempt to isolate and evaluate how various factors influence brain structures and mental processes.

In 2005, Hillman et al. measured reaction times and EEGs (electroencephalograms) to contrast the mental functioning of low and high physically fit children. High-fit children’s response times were significantly faster than those of less-fit children. Further, EEGs revealed that high-fit children evidenced P3 (an ERP, or event related potential involved in brain activity directly related to attention), the P3 latency measures indicated faster cognitive processing speed and P3 amplitude measures indicated greater allocation of care than lower-fit children. This provides direct evidence that physically fit children display greater cortical activation and similar cognitive performance than less healthy children.

A study conducted by Zervas et al. (1991) hypothesized that exercise training would prepare children to perform a matching-to-sample task given immediately after vigorous physical activity. This study revealed that children’s speed of processing increased, regardless of the type of physical activity treatment. Children’s response accuracy before and following exercise showed that boys in the aerobic exercise training program and the physical education program improved significantly. The accuracy of reply for children in the two exercise conditions was significantly higher than that of boys in the control condition. Direct evidence for a link between physical activity and processing speeds.

In a more recent study done by Davis et al. in 2007, clear evidence for a particular facilitation effect of aerobic exercise on children’s executive function was obtained. The study assessed the impact of 10-15 weeks of exercise training on the cognitive functioning of 94 overweight children who ranged in age from 7 to 11 years. Children were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions: no exercise control, 20-min exercise, or 40-min exercise state. Children participated in physical training games five days/week after school. The program consisted of games (e.g., running games, jump rope, soccer) designed to maintain an average heart rate of 150 bpm and to exert a vigorous physical challenge. A standardized test of cognitive function, the Cognitive Assessment System (CAS) (Naglieri and Das, 1997), was administered to each child before and after the intervention period.

The CAS provides four scales of cognitive functioning: Planning, Attention, Simultaneous, and Successive. Let’s look at each subsection of this assessment system: “Planning” involves executive functioning, i.e., cognitive control, utilization of processes and knowledge, intentionality, and self-regulation. “Attention” assesses focused, selective cognitive activity and resistance to distraction. “Simultaneous” determines spatial and logical sequential information. Analysis of covariance performed on post-test scores revealed that exercise influenced the “Planning” scale. Children in the high dose exercise group improved their performances significantly more than those children in the control group. No effects were observed on any of the other scales, which shows even more specifically the direct correlation between the effects of physical exercise on the cognitive processes used in executive functioning, namely “Planning,” which, again, involves cognitive control, utilization of processes and knowledge, intentionality, and self-regulation.  

From this, it can be evidenced that physically fit children perform cognitive tasks faster and display patterns of neurophysiological activity demonstrating greater mobilization of brain resources than fewer likely children. Several large-scale experiments provide evidence to suggest that exercise exerts specific, rather than global (such as IQ and intelligence tests would evidence), effects on children’s cognitive function. Following aerobic exercise training, children’s performance improves exclusively on those tasks and processes that are directly related to executive functioning which involves scheduling, response inhibition, planning, and working memory; controlled processing, which requires the automatization of reaction sequences; visuospatial processing, which includes perceptual learning and speeded processing, which places demands on simple reaction time.

At Kidspace we are ardent believers in the beneficial effects of exercise and physical activity on children’s learning and incorporate large amounts of physical activity into every child’s day. Call or visit us today at Kidspace to find out more about our teaching methods and our unique approach to learning.

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