Many factors contribute to how well a child performs in school, including how much they read at home, their nutrition, sleep patterns and physical activity, to name a few.

A study published this November in the journal Neuroimage has made some significant new findings related to physical fitness of children, academic performance and the brain itself.

The researchers at the University of Granada in Spain examined 101 overweight or obese children aged eight to 11 years. Over the course of the study, the researchers confirmed previous research findings that children with greater physical fitness (measured by aerobic capacity and motor ability) have improved academic performance compared to children with a lower level of physical fitness.

Where this research has broken new ground is with another correlation it made. This study found that children who were more physically fit (improved aerobic capacity and motor ability) had improved brain structure (measured by gray matter volume) compared with less physically fit children. Essentially, the children with better physical fitness scores had more volume in areas of the brain which are important for higher level thinking.

Improved physical fitness was associated with greater gray matter volume in many areas of the brain including the frontal, subcortical, temporal regions and the calcarine complex. Observed as a whole, these brain regions are important for learning, motor function and higher executive functions (i.e. time management, planning, multitasking, analyzing).

While this study was relatively small at only 101 children being observed, the results still shed light on the importance of exercise and how it plays a role in the cognitive health of our children.

When one of the researchers of this study, Dr. Francisco Ortega, PhD, was asked about the findings she answered that, “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.”

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