Vigorous Exercise After School Enhances Cognition in School Kids

First Posted: Sep 29, 2014 06:35 AM EDT

Engaging in vigorous physical exercise after school on a daily basis can boost cognition in students, a new study states.

For all school-aged kids, being physically active is a key component for good health. It not just boosts the development of muscles, but also fends of obesity. Studies have also revealed that regular physical activity helps students succeed in school as well as in life. The American Heart Association recommends that children and adolescents should engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.

The latest study by researchers at the University of Illinois who conducted a nine-month-long randomized controlled found that children who engage in vigorous physical activity for atleast 60 minutes a day experience better ability to pay attention, avoid distraction and switch between cognitive tasks.

The study focused on 221 participants - half of them were assigned to after-school program and the rest were placed on a wait list. As a part of the study, all of them had undergone cognitive testing and brain imaging before and after the intervention called FITKids.

"Those in the exercise group received a structured intervention that was designed for the way kids like to move," said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Charles Hillman, who led the study. "They performed short bouts of exercise interspersed with rest over a two-hour period."

FITKids was based on the CATCH exercise program, a research-based health promotion initiative funded by the NIH which is currently used by schools and health departments across the United States. Also, those belonging to the FITKids had to wear heart-rate monitors and pedometers during the intervention.

"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," Hillman said. The children were active for about 70 minutes per day. The level of fitness increased the most among the intervention group over the study period.

A six percent increase in fitness level was noticed in those belonging to the FITKids intervention group. There was less than one fitness improvement in those belonging to the waist-list control group. The children in exercise group noticed increase in attentional inhibition and cognitive flexibility too. Attentional inhibition is a measure of the ability to block out distractions and concentrate on the task at hand. Cognitive flexibility involves switching between intellectual tasks while maintaining speed and accuracy.

A very minimal improvement was noticed in the waist list control group.

"Kids in the intervention group improved two-fold compared to the wait-list kids in terms of their accuracy on cognitive tasks," he said. "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 improvement in FITKids intervention correlated with the school attendance rate. Greater attendance was linked to greater chance in the brain function as well as cognitive performance.

The finding was documented in the journal Pediatrics.

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