Researchers Say Fit Children Have Beefier Brains

By Tom Joseph
Pennsylvania Bureau, Public News Service

HARRISBURG PA – There’s new evidence that keeping children active not only keeps their bodies healthy, but also their brains.

Researchers issued a new report Aug. 19 that indicates physically fit children have "beefier" brain white matter than their less fit peers

Researchers issued a report Aug. 19 that indicates physically fit children have “beefier” brain white matter than their less fit peers

White matter describes the bundles of axons that carry nerve signals from one area of the brain to another. Laura Chaddock-Heyman and other researchers last week (Aug. 19, 2014) reported they found a link between physical fitness and the integrity of white matter tracks in the brains of 9- and 10-year-old children.

She says it doesn’t mean that physically fit children are smarter, but perhaps their beefier brains work better.

“It does seem that the white matter tracks in higher fit children are more structurally compact, or stronger or more fibrous compared to their lower fit peers, which would most likely lead to a more efficient brain structure,” she explains.

Chaddock-Heyman points out that previous research has shown an association between improved aerobic fitness and gains in cognitive function on specific tasks and in academic settings. She says she hopes the new research encourages families to exercise and stay active, and it opens a discussion in the community about public health and education.

“We’re hoping that schools will, instead of minimizing or eliminating physical activity during the day, include more physical education programs and physical-activity opportunities in the classroom,” she says.

The researchers are now taking the findings further in a controlled trial to determine if white matter integrity improves in children who start a new exercise routine and maintain it over time.

Their findings are in the open-access journal, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Chaddock-Heyman is based at the University of Illinois; Kirk I. Erickson, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh PA, is among those who joined her in the work.

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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois

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