Physically fit children, particularly those with higher aerobic and motor abilities, exhibit more gray matter in several cortical and subcortical brain regions, according to a new study at the University of Granada (UGR) in Spain. In turn, a greater volume of fitness-related gray matter is linked to stronger academic performance.
The study, published in the journal Neuroimage, is part of the Active Brains project, a randomized clinical trial involving more than 100 overweight/obese children.
“Our work aims at answering questions such as whether the brain of children with better physical fitness is different from that of children with worse physical fitness and if this affects their academic performance,” said study leader Dr. Francisco B. Ortega from the department of physical education and sport.
“The answer is short and forceful: Yes, physical fitness in children is linked in a direct way to important brain structure differences, and such differences are reflected in the children’s academic performance.”
The project was mostly conducted at the University of Granada’s Sport and Health Institute (IMUDS, from its abbreviation in Spanish) and the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Research Center (CIMCYC).
In particular, the researchers found that aerobic capacity is specifically linked to greater gray matter volume in frontal regions (premotor cortex and supplementary motor cortex), subcortical regions (hippocampus and caudate nucleus), temporal regions (inferior temporal gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus), and the calcarine cortex. All of these regions are important for executive function as well as for learning, motor, and visual processes.
In addition, children’s motor ability was found to be associated with a greater volume of gray matter in two regions essential for language processing and reading: the inferior frontal gyrus and the superior temporal gyrus. No link was found between muscular strength alone and gray matter volume in any brain region.
In turn, greater volumes of fitness-related gray matter found in the cortical and subcortical regions improved the children’s academic performance.
Dr. Irene Esteban-Cornejo, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Granada and lead author of the paper, said, “Physical fitness is a factor that can be modified through physical exercise, and combining exercises that improve the aerobic capacity and the motor ability would be an effective approach to stimulate brain development and academic performance in overweight/obese children.”
The findings carry important implications, and educational and public health institutions would do well to take notice.
In the paper, the authors appeal to both politicians and teachers, emphasizing that school is the only entity which gathers children in a mandatory fashion for a period of at least ten years. As such, “it’s the ideal context for applying such recommendations,” they said.
Source: University of Granada