Updated 06 March 2015

Fit kids are smart kids

Exercise makes us feel good. But did you know it has an impact on your children’s cognitive performance, especially if they keep exercising throughout their lives?


Growing research shows that regular physical activity in childhood and adolescence has a host of benefits. Being physically active can improve your child’s strength and endurance, help build healthy bones and muscles, help control weight, reduce anxiety and stress, increase self-esteem and may improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

But did you know that fitness can actually make your child smarter?

Read: Health checks crucial for school-aged kids

Studies are increasingly showing the positive effects physical activity can have on children's brain function.

Positive changes in brain function

Children who do at least 60 minutes of physical activity after school every day may improve their cognitive functioning and brain health, according to research published in Paediatrics (September 2014).

Prof Charles Hillman of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign noted that the researchers found widespread changes in brain function, which relate to cognitive processing speed and the allocation of attention during cognitive tasks. He comments that children in the exercise group also showed improvements in the ability to block out distractions and focus on tasks (known as attentional inhibition).

In addition, they also had better cognitive flexibility, the ability to move between intellectual tasks without compromising accuracy and speed, and were twice as accurate as the control group in terms of accuracy on cognitive tasks.

“The fact that the exercise group showed improvements in attention, were better able to avoid distractions and had a greater ability to switch between cognitive tasks than the control group demonstrate a causal effect of a physical activity programme on executive brain control,” he explained.

Exercise good for kids with ADHD

Other studies have also shown a strong link between exercise and brain power. In a 2012 study, researchers at Michigan State University found that a short 20-minute exercise session a day may boost academic performance in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Head researcher and assistant professor of Kinesiology, Prof Matthew Pontifex, said their findings, published in the Journal of Paediatrics, “demonstrate for the first time that kids with ADHD can focus better and become less distracted after a quick session of exercise”.

This, he explained, is significant because inhibitory control (resisting distractions, giving a more considered response, avoiding one’s first reaction) is the biggest struggle people with ADHD have to cope with.

An equally compelling study – this time by researchers at King’s College in London, published in 2013 in Psychological Medicine – showed that regular exercise as a child may improve cognitive functioning and brain function later in life.

They pointed out that it’s already well known that, besides improving blood circulation and clearing the mind, exercise also has considerable effects on memory and brain-specific functions.

“Our findings highlight the need for people to make long-term lifestyle changes and include exercise into their lives to improve cognitive well-being,” the researchers said.

Read: Schooling: when one size doesn't fit all

Exercise linked to larger brain volume

Perhaps the most compelling reason why youngsters should get off the couch and exercise is found in a series of articles on the relation between childhood physical activity and brain health, cognition and scholastic achievement.

In a 2014 issue of Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development  articles by over 20 researchers show that people who take part in more physical activity have larger brain volumes in the areas associated with memory and cognitive control that encompasses behaviour, action, thought and decision making.

Lead author Prof Charles Hillman urged governments and school administrators to consider the evidence that decreased physical activity is related to decreased academic performance.

Child-friendly gyms

There’s never been a better time than now to heed the advice of researchers, medical professionals and public health officials worldwide, who recommend that children aged 6 to 17 years should do at least 60 minutes of physical activity like running, cycling or brisk walking every day.

Worldwide, however, a major problem is making it easy for youngsters to be more active – not just at school, but also in environments like fitness gyms and health clubs.  

Fortunately, an innovation by the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation is set to do just that. Its guidelines for the fitness industry relate to children participating in gyms in a safe and supervised environment. Developed jointly by Fitness NSW and the Children’s Hospital Institute of Sports Medicine, author Dr Robert Parker hopes the comprehensive guidelines for children aged five to 16 years will be embraced by fitness centres across NSW and ultimately across Australia.

In addition, the Children’s Hospital at Westmead has developed a Charter of physical activity and sport for children and youth in conjunction with over 60 community groups, recreational clubs, fitness organisations and national sporting bodies.

Several gym groups in Australia have already made their facilities more accessible for young fitness enthusiasts.

Read: Kids who walk or bike to school eat less junk food

These include:

•    Fitness First, which is part of the world’s largest privately owned health group. With 78 clubs in Australia, it’s described as the country’s greatest fitness club chain. The fitness clubs offer interactive fitness classes incorporating the latest music and fun moves for children aged three to 12. According to its website, the 45-minute kids’ classes combine cardio fun, strength, dance, balance, stability, speed, relaxation and stretching. The fitness chain also offers the FFIT Holidays programme for teens aged 14 to 18. Kids are encouraged to use gym equipment and do group exercise classes during the school holidays.
•    My Gym, which is part of the global fitness group My Gym Children's Fitness Centre, has a few branches in Australia. Its goal is to instil physical activity as a way of life for youngsters.  The My Gym concept focuses on fitness made fun for kids through a programme aimed to help children aged between 6 weeks and 13 years to develop physically, cognitively and emotionally. The gyms offer structured, age-appropriate weekly classes that incorporate music, dance, relays, games, special rides, gymnastics, sports and other original activities.
•    Lifestyle Fitness Australia is a smaller gym group with three clubs located in Sydney. It allows teens aged 12 to 14 to attend cardio classes under adult supervision, and youngsters aged 14 to16 to attend cardio classes and use cardio equipment under adult supervision.

Read More:

Get your kids to drink more water

The science of childhood remedies

Today's parents blind to kids' obesity

Image: Child at gym with pilates pink ball from Shutterstock

-    NSW Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation: Guidelines for running physical activity programmes for young people in fitness and leisure centres in NSW
-    Pontifex, M. B., Saliba, B. J., Raine, L. B., Picchietti, D. L., & Hillman, C. H. (in press). Exercise improves behavioral, neurocognitive, and scholastic performance in children with ADHD. Journal of Pediatrics.
-    Dregana, A, Gulliford M. C. Leisure-time physical activity over the life course and cognitive functioning in late mid-adult years: a cohort-based investigation.  Psychological Medicine
-   Silja Martikainen, Anu-Katriina Pesonen et al. Higher Levels of Physical Activity Are Associated With Lower Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical Axis Reactivity to Psychosocial Stress in Children. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism
-   Haapala et al. Associations of Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior with Academic Skills ? A Follow-Up Study among Primary School Children. PLOS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0107031, published 10 September 2014, Abstract.




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