Highlighting the importance of the mind-body relationship, a new study has found that 7- to 9-year-old participants in an after-school fitness program improved their cognitive skills, enhancing their academic performance.

Researchers in the United States and Japan wanted to determine the effects of an after-school physical activity program on measures of executive control in preadolescent children. Lead study author Charles Hillman, PhD, professor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said in a university news release that the exercise group program was designed for the way kids like to move. “They performed short bouts of exercise interspersed with rest over a two-hour period.”

Investigators included 221 children in the 9-month randomized controlled trial. Half of them took part in the FITKids intervention; the others enrolled in a wait list group. Everyone participated in cognitive testing and brain imaging before and after the intervention. Exercise group members participated each day after school in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for at least 70 minutes a day during the 2-hour program.

“Kids in the intervention group improved two-fold compared to the wait-list kids in terms of their accuracy on cognitive tasks,” said Hillman. “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. . . . Improvements observed in the FITKids intervention were correlated with their attendance rate, such that greater attendance was related to greater change in brain function and cognitive performance.”

The study was published in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Pediatrics (2014; doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-3219).