By Supriya Venigalla, MD
It has long been known that kids need exercise for growth and development. Our moms, teachers, and pediatricians have all extolled the value of physical activity. But did you know that the hours between 3 pm and bedtime are especially vital to a child’s cognitive development?
Studies done by researchers from University of Illinois, Michigan State University, Schreiner College, and Waseda University, Japan, have found that kids who exercise after school not only experience improved fitness, but also improved brain function, especially during tasks that require greater executive control.
A study of 221 children between the ages of 7 and 9 were assigned randomly to a nine-month experiment. Children who engaged in moderate activity for at least 60 minutes a day after school showed 2x the ability to pay attention and switch between cognitive tasks when compared to their sedentary counterparts. A Swedish study on male teenagers found that those who were more physically fit were also more likely to have a higher IQ and go on to college.
Childhood is a period where the brain goes through extensive change in terms of its structure, function, and connectivity. Regular physical activity as a child may have protective effects on brain health all throughout life. Kids and young adults who lead an active lifestyle generally perform better on exams and are inclined to fewer behavioral problems. This is due to the positive correlation between cardiovascular fitness and the basal ganglia, a group of brain structures that are responsible for voluntary movement and attention. Also, increases in blood and oxygen flow to the brain improve cognitive processing. 60 minutes of afterschool exercise can still leave time for homework and piano lessons, and provides the additional bonus of less television time.
I recently had the opportunity of visiting the offices of Girls on the Run in Nashville, Tn., a wellness and character development program for girls in the 3rd-8th grades. This after-school program engages young girls both physically and mentally with the end-goal of participating in a local 5K run. The girls told me that they feel more confident than they did prior to the program and they have the confidence to actively engage in class discussions and be hopeful about their futures. That type of self-assurance is motivation enough to get your kids moving.
If your kids aren’t into sports, they still don’t have to be glued to the television. Dancing, rock climbing, or martial arts are all activities that will help your child discover the joys of physical activity. Remember, when you move more, you live more!