Physical activity improves brain development in children and teens.

A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body

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The Importance of Activity in Children’s Brain Development 


Researchers from the University of Granada (UGR) have proven, for the first time in history, that physical fitness in children may affect their brain structure, which in turn may have an influence on their academic performance.”

This study has been published in the Neuroimage journal and is part of the ActiveBrains project.

Rediscovering Old Truths

Many of you reading this will be astonished that the importance of physical activity in childhood is being hailed as a ‘new’ discovery.  After all, up until very recently it was taken for granted that a proper Western education included sports and physical activities in addition to the academic stuff.  A healthy mind in a healthy body was a concept appreciated by both the ancient Greeks (Thales, the pre-Socratic philosopher) and the ancient Romans (Juvenal in his satires).  It made sense that the two were connected and empirical observation proved it, long before the arrival of the MRI scan.

In recent years, however, schools have tended to scale back the emphasis on sports and other physical activities.  Instead they have been selling off playing fields and sports grounds to raise money for equipment and other perceived necessities. Physical education and sports became a luxury on the curriculum rather than compulsory. At the same time, children’s activity levels have dropped due to lifestyle changes. They spend more time watching TV and playing with computers.  They don’t run around outdoors and play energetically with friends like their parents’ generation. 

More children are growing up in apartments and houses with limited garden space or where it is not safe for children to play outside.  The burgeoning fast food and snack food industry has contributed significantly to what is now regarded as an epidemic of childhood obesity.  A ‘perfect storm’ of bad lifestyle choices. There have been many campaigns to improve school lunches and the food available to children and teens during the day.  Perhaps the same attention should also be given to their physical activities during school hours, to compensate for the lack of opportunities at home.

Scientific Evidence

Up until this point, however, no one had really looked to there being any specific scientific proof that children NEED to be physically fit and active as this affects brain development. This is where the researchers from the University of Granada come into the discussion.  They took a group of over a hundred overweight and obese children in a randomized clinical trial led by Francisco B. Ortega.

The so-called ActiveBrains project is being carried out mainly at the University of Granada’s Sport and Health Institute (IMUDS, from its abbreviation in Spanish) and the Mind, Brain and Behavior Research Center (CIMCYC). This is what they say, we quote:

“ … specifically, the researchers have confirmed that physical fitness in children (especially aerobic capacity and motor ability) is associated with a greater volume of gray matter in several cortical and subcortical brain regions.

In particular, aerobic capacity has been associated with greater gray matter volume in frontal regions (premotor cortex and supplementary motor cortex), subcortical regions (hippocampus and caudate nucleus), temporal regions (inferior temporal gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus) and the calcarine cortex. All of those regions are important for the executive function as well as for learning, motor and visual processes.”

Physical Activity and Brain Structure

They set out to determine whether or not the brains of children with better physical fitness were different to those with poor physical fitness and how this affects academic performance. The outcome was clear.  Ortega said:  ‘”The answer is short and forceful: yes, 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.” ‘

Grey Matter and Physical Activity

Motor ability is related with greater grey matter volume in the two regions of the brain essential for language processing and reading, the inferior frontal gyrus and the superior temporal gyrus.  Muscular strength, as opposed to motor ability, was not related to any specific brain region but was connected to an overall increase in grey matter.

Parents and Teachers Can Increase Activity Levels

As a child’s physical fitness is something that can be modified through physical exercise and combining exercises that improve aerobic capacity with those that enhance motor ability, this is a way of improving a child’s brain development, intelligence and academic potential.  Parents and educators can control these factors as they have an impact on a child’s lifestyle choices and education.

A Life-Long Active Lifestyle for Brain Health

We already know that at the other end of the spectrum there is a correlation between physical fitness, health and brain health in old age so laying down good lifestyle habits at an early age may also help to reduce the likelihood of developing dementia in old age.

The researchers hope that their findings will encourage educators and institutions to reverse the trend and put physical activities and sports back on the curriculum.  Future generations may be brighter, brainier and better educated human beings as a result.


Journal Reference:

  1. Irene Esteban-Cornejo, Cristina Cadenas-Sanchez, Oren Contreras-Rodriguez, Juan Verdejo-Roman, Jose Mora-Gonzalez, Jairo H. Migueles, Pontus Henriksson, Catherine L. Davis, Antonio Verdejo-Garcia, Andrés Catena, Francisco B. Ortega. A whole brain volumetric approach in overweight/obese children: Examining the association with different physical fitness components and academic performance. The ActiveBrains project. NeuroImage, 2017; 159: 346 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.08.011

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