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Updated 29 February 2016

Exercise in early childhood makes for healthier brains in adults

Encouraging your child to be physically active from an early age may not only set them on a course of improved brain function, but may also help protect them against a variety of stress-related conditions in adulthood.

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We all know that regular and appropriate physical exercise is good for us. It helps control body weight and reduces the risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Trillions of microbes

What may come as more of a surprise is that exercising in early childhood can also be beneficial to future mental health by promoting the proper development of the brain through the establishment of vigorous and divers communities of bacteria in the digestive system.

Read: A healthy body equals a healthy brain

Shortly after birth, the intestines of infants are colonised by trillions of microbes which aid in the digestion of food as well as a number of other vital bodily functions. Having the right mix and quantity of these bacteria in the gut turns out to be crucial to the growth of the metabolic, immune and neural systems.

Scientists have discovered that the microbial communities in our stomachs are particularly "plastic" – or amenable to change – at a young age. Because they are less malleable and adaptive in adulthood, what happens to them in the early developmental stages of a person’s life can have long-lasting effects.

Read: 7 ways to make fitness fun

In a new paper, published in the medical journal Immunology and Cell Biology in December, two US researchers argue that “exercise during this developmentally receptive time” promotes “optimal brain and metabolic function across the lifespan” by stimulating the growth and diversification of beneficial microbes in the digestive tract.

Studies of juvenile rats

According to the paper’s co-author Monika Fleshner, a professor in the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, “the ability of a young microbiota to robustly respond to environmental stimuli, such as diet and exercise, is likely the primary reason that early life exercise, compared to adult exercise, produces more profound alterations in the gut microbiota”.

Read: Why mothers should eat chocolate during pregnancy

The results published in the paper are based on studies of juvenile rats, which show that those individuals who exercised voluntarily on a daily basis developed healthier microbial gut communities with greater numbers of beneficial species of bacteria than their more sedentary counterparts, as well as adult rats, even when the latter exercised regularly.

Further studies are necessary to determine at exactly which age the intestinal bacteria are most amenable to beneficial changes from physical activity and exercise, but the researchers believe that it’s a case of "the earlier, the better".

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Image: Kids exercising from iStock

Article resources 

Mika, A and Fleshner, M. (2015, December, 9). Early-life exercise may promote lasting brain and metabolic heath through gut bacterial metabolites. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/icb/journal/v94/n2/abs/icb2015113a.html 

 

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