Exercise and the brain

With ever increasing demands on young students schools have begun to cut out physical education and recess to make more time for other classes.  We may be headed in the opposite direction with this change because research suggests what we all know to be true... exercise is vital to maximizing capability and attention in the classroom.  Exercise improves not only physical health but mental health, and improves thinking capability as well.  A study published by Hillman et al. in Pediatrics and summarized nicely in articles referenced shows that physically active children show improved thinking skills when compared to children who are not as active.  (1)

The researchers looked at a group of children participating in an after school program called Fitness Improves Thinking (FITKids).  The group would eat snacks and learn fitness and nutrition information then they would play for 70 minutes.  Upon testing the children who participated in FITKids showed significant improvements in executive control (resisting distraction, maintaining focus), working memory, and cognitive flexibility (switching between tasks).  

Electrophysiological plots representing brain processing   capacity and mental workload (  P3 amplitude  ) during   cognitive tasks that require executive control in children   in the experiment and control groups. Red represents   the greatest amplitude, and blue the lowest.   (Hillman et al,   Pediatrics  /  The Atlantic  )

Electrophysiological plots representing brain processing capacity and mental workload (P3 amplitude) during cognitive tasks that require executive control in children in the experiment and control groups. Red represents the greatest amplitude, and blue the lowest.
(Hillman et al, Pediatrics/The Atlantic)

Further, brain scans of the children participating in FITKids showed increased brain activity in an area of the brain corresponding to focus.  Interestingly, the changes in brain activity correlated to the amount of time kids spent in the program.  The more times they have attended, the greater the change.  Also worth noting that even one exercise session lasting 30 minutes or more has been shown to have some impact on higher function.  

The lead researcher in this particular study suggests the significant effects resulted from minute changes in physical health.  Hillman states "We're not taking them from low-fit to high-fit.  We're taking them from low-fit to slightly-less low-fit."  These children don't need to be training for a marathon to see significant increases in attention orientation and multitasking, rather they simply need to play!

Exercise and ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is one of the most common childhood disorders affecting the child's ability to focus or control behavior.  The preferred method of treatment by the numbers is clearly medication with drugs as powerful as stimulants and amphetamines. The number of prescriptions has reached 48.4 million in 2011. With research mounting it seems completely evident that physical activity is a much safer and more logical resolution.  Armed with this knowledge parents need to take action and be sure their kids are moving!  Enroll them in sports, throw away the video games for now and be sure the school board does not cut one more minute from physical education and recess time.  The Hillman study referenced above was published just this morning but lets run through a few from earlier this year.

Last month another study was conducted looking specifically at the effects of exercise on children with ADHD by the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinic of North America.  The conclusion... "Physical exercise enhances brain development and neurobehavioral functioning in areas believed to be impaired in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)" The researchers suggest the data implies a strong rationale for a program of structured physical exercise as a form of intervention for children with ADHD.  (2)

In april an article published in the Chinese Journal of Pediatrics suggested that exercise improves ADHD symptoms while also improving cerebellar function and balance.  And in March of this year the Journal of Attention Disorders concluded a systematic review of the literature by stating "30 minutes of exercise reportedly improves executive function in children with ADHD.  (3)

These studies are just the tip of the ice berg and only a bit of what has been published this year alone!  With this insurmountable body of evidence exercise is still not widely accepted as an intervention for ADHD.  On the National Institute of Mental Health's website they do not even mention exercise in the treatment tab, rather they list pages of possible side effects from common medications.

How exactly does exercise help with behavioral and mental health disorders?

Exercise induces dopamine and serotonin release.  In the brain dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter, a chemical released from a nerve ending to communicate with other nerve cells.  The chemical plays a vital role in the pleasure-reward signaling.  A pleasurable experience will release dopamine and stimulate a rewarding feeling, often motivating the person to seek that behavior again.  This is not the only job of dopamine however, it also plays a part in motor control pathways, which can result in debilitating disease such as Parkinson's when degeneration of dopamine production center takes place.  Altered dopamine neurotransmission is implicated in ADHD specifically and drugs that help produce more dopamine or help receptors receive them more readily have helped keep the disorder in check, however if exercise can help the brain naturally produce more dopamine than it becomes the natural "drug" of choice.  

Interestingly serotonin is primarily produced in the gut but also has a significant effect on brain activity.  Its effect on the central nervous system seems to be balancing mood and preventing depression.  Again, as exercise induces more serotonin production it becomes a natural and logical intervention in children suffering from ADHD.  



1. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-09/uoia-aep092514.php

2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25220093

3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24915917

Joseph GlennComment