There is no question that exercise is good for your kid’s physical health. But did you know that exercise is crucial for the developing brain as well? Childhood and adolescence are important and sensitive periods for both cognitive and emotional development. Unfortunately, children today are leading increasingly sedentary lifestyles that involve time spent on computers, iPads, phones, and watching TV. Even when involved in sports, this lifestyle leads them to neglect physical activity that has been critical to this development period. In fact, exercise has the most beneficial effect on brains that are still developing!
Studies show that exercise not only boosts memory and thinking skills but also changes the structure and function of the brain and improves academic performance! Fit kids & teens get better grades, have better concentration, are more resilient, and get more restful sleep.
Findings on how exercise helps the brain develop:
- Exercise facilitates the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and body. This leads to better circulation and is critical for the transport of oxygen, glucose, and other nutrients to neurons. This increases alertness and capacity for knowledge, making it easier for children to learn! A 3- month exercise program has been shown to increase blood flow to the hippocampus, the area responsible for learning and memory, by 30%.
- Exercise stimulates the release of growth factors like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF1). Both of which are chemicals in the brain that affect the health, abundance, and survival of brain cells.
- BNDF, in particular, is sometimes referred to as “Miracle-Grow” for the brain. It’s responsible for the growth and survival of new nerve cells and causes neurons to branch out, join together, and communicate in new ways. There is some evidence to suggest that BDNF increases are dependent on exercise intensity, with high-intensity interval training (i.e. CrossFit!) producing the greatest benefit!
- Susceptibility to high-risk behaviors in adolescents is associated with not-yet-mature cognitive control. In fMRI studies, which measure blood flow to areas of the brain fit adolescents demonstrate more mature and “adult-like” activation patterns of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain important for executive decision making and inhibitory control.
- Exercise improves attention, concentration, and cognitive flexibility. This translates to a child’s ability to be more creative, stay on task, shift thinking, focus for longer, plan, and complete homework! Activities that specifically involve balance and jumping tasks strengthen the vestibular system, which is involved in spatial awareness and mental alertness. Programs that focus on both cardiovascular fitness and motor control are the perfect way to enhance academic performance.
- Exercise drops stress hormones and increases the number of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. This helps to accelerate both emotional and informational processing while increasing stress resilience!
- Exercise releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural “feel good” chemicals. Regular activity can significantly improve symptoms of depression and anxiety and can help kids and teens to reduce anxiety sensitivity. In fact, one study found that teens who got regular vigorous exercise were 25% less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years!
- Physical activity has also been shown to increase levels of the neuropeptide oxytocin, “the love hormone”, particularly in girls. This chemical is important for psychosocial development- especially for trust, empathy, and bonding with others, as well as calming the body’s stress response!
Regular exercise will improve sleep duration and sleep efficiency. Physical activity is actually recommended as a treatment for adolescents experiencing sleepiness and fatigue!
Important Brain Development Milestones
The adolescent brain undergoes intense development and brain maturation. A major feature of this developmental period is the loss of some neuronal connections and the simultaneous strengthening of others. This helps determine how your child’s brain is “wired” for adulthood. Alongside the basic development of motor, cognitive, and social skills, this increase in plasticity translates to the limbic system (emotional) and prefrontal cortex (logical thinking, decision making, rational judgments) functioning.
Some important milestones include:
- The most intensive development of all components of executive functions, especially cognitive flexibility, happens between 7-12 years of age.
- Around 8-10 years, synapsis, connections in the brain become less dense and the electrical activity of the brain increases.
- The greatest development of frontal and temporal lobes tends to occur at the age of 10-12 years. The brain matures and develops rapidly at this time, making it particularly prone to environmental influences (both positive and negative)
Engaging in physical activity during this time stimulates the maturation of multiple areas in the brain. This also increases the speed of neuronal communications. Training programs that combine exercises to improve the aerobic capacity and motor ability are an effective approach to both stimulate brain development and academic performance.
How Much Exercise Makes a Difference?
The World Health Organization specifies guidelines indicating that children should devote AT LEAST 60 minutes a day to physical activity, as well as strengthen their muscles and bones with strength training at least 2-3 times a week! Without physical exercise, children may never fully develop their genetic potential in terms of motor skills AND cognitive performance! Adolescence is a formative time in life and the perfect time to support brain development while learning healthy habits and coping skills with physical activity.