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Brain Exercises: How Physical Activity Affects Cognitive Control | NeuroConnections

Katie Brohawn

Katie Brohawn directs research for TASC. This blog is part of our NeuroConnections blog series, where we explore the bridge between neuroscience and education.

NeuroConnections logoThe past few days, my Facebook feed has been abuzz with this TeacherPop blog post from Teach for America: Science Says Your Classroom Needs More Dance Parties. And while I swear I don’t get the majority of my news from Facebook, the title had me hooked and I needed to investigate further. The blog gives a fantastic overview of a December 2014 review chapter in Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. In this, they highlight how increasing children’s physical activity can lead to changes in both brain structure and function. However, as a former functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) enthusiast, I was compelled to dig deeper into one research study by Chaddock-Heyman and colleagues – in particular, a 2013 Frontiers in Human Neuroscience article.  

While previous research has documented the beneficial impact of physical activity on children’s cognitive control and attention, little was known about whether/how this association was related to the brain. The researchers set out to determine what brain activation patterns were associated with increases in children’s cognitive control that are linked with physical activity. Cognitive control is our ability to selectively pay attention to what’s important in our environment while filtering out what is not. (Those of us who work in a cubicle are all too familiar with this concept.) They explored patterns of brain activity using fMRI among 8 and 9 year olds who participated in a 9-month physical activity program compared to their age-matched peers who did not complete the program, as well as to young adults.  

The results showed that after participation in the physical fitness intervention, not only did children show greater cognitive control, but their patterns of brain activity in response to cognitive control tasks were distinct as well. After participating in the fitness intervention, brain activity was lower in a key region known to be involved in cognitive control: the right anterior prefrontal cortex. In fact, the biggest activity decrease in this region was seen in response to the task that required the greatest amount of attention (and suppression of distracting information). Meanwhile, 8 and 9 year olds who did not participate in the physical activity intervention showed no change in activation over time.

While on the surface one may think less activation = bad, in this case it actually represents more mature (perhaps efficient?) brain function. This is supported by the fact that after participation in the physical activity intervention, activity in the right anterior prefrontal cortex among the children looked similar to that of young adults.

As physical fitness programs in schools are being cut left and right at the expense of time for academics, this research supports the beneficial effects of physical fitness on student learning. As the authors so succinctly state in the last sentence of their article, “These results should raise public awareness of the cognitive benefits of being active and encourage participation in a multicomponent physical activity program such as physical education, classroom activity breaks, and active transport to school.” (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2013)

In other words, a dance party or jumping jacks may be just the test prep that a student needs.

P.S. For those interested in learning more, I must echo the suggestion on the teacherpop blog post to check out the Neuroscience for Teachers series on the GoNoodle blog. I know I’ll be keeping my eye on it.



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