This post looks at the relationship between exercise and executive functioning. Executive functions are what allow you to concentrate, stay focused and think, rather than act on impulse. They are higher order processes which regulate goal-directed behavior. Core executive functions include inhibition (self-control and self-regulation), working memory (ability to temporarily store and manage information to meet mental challenges), and cognitive control and flexibility (ability to restructure knowledge and information based on changing situational demands).
Executive functions underlie creativity and discipline, and are necessary to perform well in school and life. Research finds that, after controlling for socioeconomics, gender and IQ, children with less persistence, more impulsivity, and poorer attention regulation at ages 3 to 11 tend to have worse health, earn less, and commit more crimes 30 years later than children with better self control measured at the same time. Executive functioning tends to be more important for school readiness than IQ, and can predict math and reading competence throughout school.
The Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an innovative initiative which studies the relationship between physical activity and cognitive health across the lifespan, has been producing a number of interesting studies along these lines. The primary message coming from their research is that physical and aerobic activity is good for brain functioning at all ages.
As children mature into adults, their executive functioning matures as well. Yet experiences early-on in life can have lasting consequences, with failure in school being key among these. In this regard, their results and reported findings for children are of particular interest. They suggest:
- Running, more so than standard physical education, improves cognitive flexibility and creativity in kids aged 8 to 12. This is corroborated by others, who find that more intense aerobic exercise (e.g., 20 versus 40 minutes of running, jumping rope, soccer) leads to improvement in math and difficult executive functioning tasks.
- Lower fit children have more difficulty than more aerobically fit kids in using executive control and relational memory processes.
- Lower fit children exhibit decreased inhibitory control.
- A positive associated between aerobic fitness and cognitive control in children. Two sub-processes of cognitive control, inhibition and working memory, are associated with achievement of math and reading.
- Physical activity and increased aerobic fitness enhance brain structure and function (evidenced by MRI technologies).
- Poorer aerobic fitness is associated with failures in attentional processes, which may relate to academic achievement.
Physical activity and aerobic fitness play a critical role in maximizing the underlying brain functioning necessary for school success from an early age onward. The effect appears to hold across the lifespan. New data find that exercise improves memory and skilled task performance in aging adults. Although no long-term panel data exist, certain relationships between fitness levels and brain functioning have been observed in both children and adults. For example, the association between poorer aerobic fitness in children and decreased response accuracy when performing specific tasks and its corollary, of higher fit children being able to maintain a high level of performance across specific, variable task demands. The same has been observed in adults.
Having worked for years in early childhood development (ECD), I am reminded of the finding that gaps in educational achievement observed early on tend to become exacerbated overtime, and that quality ECD programs can help mitigate and close these gaps, as well as improve academic performance and life outcomes. Findings on exercise and brain functioning appear to offer additional insight. As kids progress through school, their levels of physical activity tend to decline. They become increasingly sedentary, even obese. This, in turn, not only influences physical health, but cognitive health and brain functioning as well. Exercise needs to be explicitly incorporated into developmental strategies for children, starting as early as possible. Physical and aerobic activity is an integral component to quality ECD and quality education. The bottom line: fit kids learn better. Get kids moving from an early age and keep them active throughout their lives.