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Exercise and Cognition in Children and Adolescents

Exercise and its importance to cognition and development in children have always been interesting to me. We know the mantra of “60 Minutes” of moderate-to-vigorous activity each day for children and adolescents. Clearly, this type of exercise imparts clear health benefits in the realm of the physical and physiological areas of our lives. More recently, several articles looking at the benefits of exercise on cognition and academic achievement in children have highlighted those benefits.

A study by Esteban-Cornejo et al looked at physical activity throughout adolescence and related this to cognitive performance at 18. Cognition is a broad term and has been defined as the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. It is also a marker of health and they begin their article noting that several studies have correlated low cognition in adolescents with multiple medical problems, including mental disorders, vascular disease and cancers later in life. They point out that physical activity is known to stimulate factors involved in brain plasticity, essential to our childhood and adolescent development. Therefore, increasing physical activity in adolescents is crucial and plays a role in brain development and therefore cognition. The authors highlight the fact that magnitude of decline in physical activity is greatest during adolescents while at the same time they have great brain plasticity that seems to respond to activity. Overall, the main findings of the study were the importance of consistent moderate exercise in adolescents and the positive association with cognitive performance at age 18.

The take away for me was, again, moderation and consistency are key to exercise in adolescents. Too little time spent being active clearly is associated with less cognitive development – an opportunity lost. Let’s promote opportunities for physical activity in our children and adolescents in every way that we can. They will have improved physical health and cognition as they proceed into adulthood.  This is beneficial to them on a personal level as well as all of us on a community level.

References:

Esteban-Cornejo, I., Hallal, P.C., et al. (2015). Physical activity throughout adolescence and cognitive performance at 18 years of age.  Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 47(12), 2552-2557.

Marsh H., & Kleitman, S. (2003) School athletic participation: mostly gain with little pain.  Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 25(2), 205-8.

Mike Reeder

Cycling CME