Parents should make sure children should do at least an hour’s group exercise every day to boost their brain function, research suggests
Children who do at least an hour of exercise after school are far better at concentrating the rest of the time, research suggests.
A study of children aged between seven and nine found significant improvements in the mental skills of those enrolled on an after-school exercise programme for nine months.
Tests found those placed on the programme improved their accuracy on some mental capability tests by twice as much as those who were not assigned to do daily exercise.
The research by the University of Illinois examined 221 children, aged 7, 8 and 9, half of whom were signed up to an after-school exercise group.
All the participants underwent cognitive testing and brain imaging before and after the nine-month trial.
The study published in the journal Pediatrics, found those who did the daily routine saw substantial improvements in their ability to pay attention, avoid distraction and switch between cognitive tasks.
Study leader Doctor Charles Hillman, a community health professor of Illinois University said: “Those in the exercise group received a structured intervention that was designed for the way kids like to move.
“They performed short bouts of exercise interspersed with rest over a two-hour period.”
The children in the FITKids exercise group wore heart-rate monitors and pedometers during the study.
Dr Hillman said: “On average, kids’ heart rates corresponded with a moderate-to-vigorous level of exercise intensity, and they averaged about 4,500 steps during the two-hour intervention.”
The children were active about 70 minutes per day and, as expected, fitness increased most in the intervention group over the course of the study.
Dr Hillman said: “We saw about a six per cent increase in fitness in children in the FITKids intervention group.”
He said fitness improved by less than one per cent in the control group.
Children in the exercise group also demonstrated substantial increases in “attentional inhibition” – a measure of their ability to block out distractions and focus on the task at hand.
And they improved in “cognitive flexibility,” which involves switching between intellectual tasks while maintaining speed and accuracy.
Dr Hillman said those who were not put on the programme, but instead placed on a waiting list, saw minimal improvements in these measures, in line with what would be expected as a result of normal maturation over the nine months.
He said: “Kids in the intervention group improved two-fold compared to the wait-list kids in terms of their accuracy on cognitive tasks.
“And we found widespread changes in brain function, which relate to the allocation of attention during cognitive tasks and cognitive processing speed. These changes were significantly greater than those exhibited by the wait-list kids.”
The study found that children with greater attendance at the programme had greater changes in brain function and cognitive performance.
Researchers said it was not known whether the improvements were a result of increased fitness, or could stem from the social interactions, stimulation and engagement of the children in group activities. Dr Hillman said efforts to improve child health should focus on group activities, as a good way to improve fitness and mental skills.
“The fact is that kids are social beings; they perform physical activity in a social environment,” he said. “A big reason why kids participate in a structured sports environment is because they find it fun and they make new friends.”
Earlier this year an All Party Commission on Physical Activity warned that just half of seven-year olds in the UK meet Government recommendations to have an hour’s moderate to vigorous physical activity each day.
MPs said schools should open “breakfast fitness clubs” so that pupils get exercise before the day starts, with extra activity sessions scheduled between lessons, or during them.