Exercise Improves the Cognition of Overweight Children

Chil­dren who exer­cise vig­or­ous­ly tend to have bet­ter grades. In con­trast, over­weight chil­dren tend to under­achieve. With this in mind, Davis and her col­leagues from Med­ical Col­lege of Geor­gia test­ed whether par­tic­i­pat­ing in an exer­cise pro­gram would help over­weight chil­dren, not only phys­i­cal­ly but also men­tal­ly. Specif­i­cal­ly, they hypoth­e­sized that the chil­dren exec­u­tive func­tions would ben­e­fit from exer­cis­ing. These func­tions are sup­port­ed by the frontal lobes of the brain and include plan­ning, goal set­ting, self-con­trol, and inhibition.

171 chil­dren, aged 7 to 11, who were over­weight and inac­tive par­tic­i­pat­ed in the study. They were ran­dom­ly assigned to three groups: a low-dose group doing aer­o­bic exer­cise 20 min/day, a high-dose group (40 min/day) and a no exer­cise con­trol group. The exer­cise pro­gram last­ed 13 weeks on aver­age. The chil­dren cog­ni­tion was assessed before and after the inter­ven­tion. A sub­group of 20 chil­dren also under­went neu­roimag­ing while per­form­ing a task mea­sur­ing exec­u­tive func­tions, before and after the intervention.


The per­for­mance of the chil­dren in the exer­cise groups increased in a task mea­sur­ing exec­u­tive func­tions and to a much small­er extent in math achieve­ment. The low and high-dose groups seemed to ben­e­fit from aer­o­bic exer­cise to the same extent.

The pat­tern of brain activ­i­ty of the chil­dren in the exer­cise groups also changed com­pared to the con­trol group: Increased bilat­er­al pre­frontal cor­tex activ­i­ty and decreased activ­i­ty in bilat­er­al pos­te­ri­or pari­etal cor­tex was observed.


Aer­o­bic exer­cise seems to ben­e­fit over­weight chil­dren not only phys­i­cal­ly but also men­tal­ly. These find­ings mir­ror the ones observed in the aging pop­u­la­tion. Aer­o­bic exer­cise influ­ences cog­ni­tion through the increase of growth fac­tors such as brain derived neu­rotroph­ic fac­tor (BDNF), which leads to increased cap­il­lary blood sup­ply to the brain and growth of both new neu­rons and synapses.

With child­hood obe­si­ty on the rise, these are very time­ly find­ings. In addi­tion, exer­cise is a sim­ple solu­tion to increase phys­i­cal health and men­tal per­for­mance. Some­thing to tell to your school board, over and over!

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About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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