While much research has pointed to a relationship between kids’ fitness and academic performance, we now have a new piece of the puzzle: A recent study found that aerobic fitness and speed–agility levels among overweight and obese children aged 8–11 were independently associated with more gray matter in parts of the brain related to better academic performance.

University of Granada researchers in Granada, Spain, conducted the study as part of the ActiveBrains research project, a randomized clinical trial with 101 children with excess weight or obesity. Study author Francisco B. Ortega, PhD, said, “Physical fitness in children is linked in a direct way to important brain structure differences, and such differences are reflected in the children’s academic ­performance.”

Researchers examined specific links between key fitness components and brain structure volume. Interestingly, while cardiorespiratory and motor-agility training were linked with greater gray-matter volumes in various areas of the brain, strength training was not. Aerobic fitness was associated with increased gray-matter volume in areas responsible for executive function, learning, and motor and visual processes. Speed–agility skill was linked to increased volume in two areas essential for language processing and reading.

“Physical fitness is a factor that can be modified through physical exercise, and combining exercises that improve the aerobic capacity and the motor ability would be an effective approach to stimulate brain development and academic performance in overweight/obese children,” said lead study author Irene Esteban-Cornejo, PhD. More research is needed on other populations.

The study is available in NeuroImage (2017; doi:10.1016/j
.neuroimage.2017.08.011).

Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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