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Physical Activity During Childhood May Help Improve Cognitive Functions Later In Life, Study

Childhood is the vital and sensitive period for the cognitive development of a child. In recent years, there have been several reports of reduced physical activities among children due to an increase in sedentary lifestyle, in which children prefer spending more time on TV and computer games and less on outdoor games. This has decreased or limited the physical activities in children, leading to various health and mental health problems as well. [1]

According to a study, physical activity has a positive impact on the cognitive functions of children aged 4-18 years. It says that children who are more physically active have shown improved results in perceptual skill, verbal tests, academics, intelligence quotient (IQ) tests and many developmental tests.

The study adds that exercise or any sort of daily physical activity not only improves cognitive health during childhood, but also throughout the lifespan. [2]


How Does Physical Activity Affect Cognitive Function?

According to a study, physical activities may act as an enhancer and help improve brain functioning and cognition by an ability called neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. It is an important function of the nervous system that allows it to modify and adapt itself as a result of experience.

Physical exercises promote changes in the brain at structural and molecular levels. It helps increase the gray matter volume, neurotrophic factors, blood flow and cognitive abilities, and prevents the risk of age-related cognitive decline like dementia.

The changes in these factors reflect on cognitive functioning and thus, enhances its performance. [3]


Influence Of Physical Activities On Different Cognitive Abilities

1. Attention

A study has shown that regular physical exercises in children between age 13-14 years can positively help improve their attention and focus towards a given task. The result was evaluated after seeing the effect of three-hour classroom teaching on students who regularly do sports, compared to those who play more computer games.

Though it was difficult to maintain the attention for the whole three hours, students who were physically active showed increased focus for the full hours, followed by them staying calm during the lessons. Even a 30-minute physical exercise can do wonders in improving the attention of children. [4]

2. Language

The development of language and speech can be influenced by physical activity in many ways. In a study, it was found that children who have spent more time in sports have got better grades. Also, girls who have spent at least one hour in sports per week have got good grades in maths and reading compared to those who do not. [5]

Other studies say that not only do exercise, but other physical activities like yoga, martial arts, dancing or any aerobics can help make changes in brain activity concerned with language and help in their better functioning, thus improving language ability, along with improving spelling performance, detecting syntactic errors and many others. [6]

3. Thinking

Thinking is referred to the ability to think creatively and planning it accordingly so as to make the right and reasonable decision. A study talks about children who were engaged in a Football Exercise Program for around six months. It says that these students have shown increased thinking and planning ability compared to students who have a sedentary lifestyle. [7]

Also, children who play non-organised sports like swimming, dancing, hiking and cycling tend to have better thinking abilities than those engaged in organised sports. [8]

4. Memory and learning

Learning refers to the act of acquiring new knowledge or modification of existing knowledge, values and skill. Studies say that physical activities can make neurological changes in the hippocampus of the brain which is associated with memory and learning.

Physical exercises during the childhood period can help in optimising brain nerves engaged in memory and also influence cells involved in learning, thus improving its functions throughout life. These positive changes in the brain structure and functions help in cognitive functions improvement. [9]


How Much Of Physical Activity Is Good For Children?

According to the CDC, around 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activities are recommended for children between ages 6-17. This session helps in the cognitive development of the child, along with improving their physical abilities like bone and muscles. [10]

Some of the best physical activities recommended for children include:

  • Aerobic activities: It includes activities like running, walking, dancing and swimming. Basically, aerobic includes all those outdoor games that can make you breathe faster and heart pound.
  • Bone-strengthening exercises: Some weight-bearing exercises like jumping rope, climbing stairs, hiking, tennis, ice skating, aerobic dancing, basketball, soccer and volleyball can help strengthen the bones in children. [11]
  • Muscle-strengthening exercise: the aforementioned weight-bearing exercises along with strength training with rope skipping and free weights can help improve muscle strength in children. [12]

How To Encourage Children To Do Physical Activities? Tips For Parents

1. Start with physical education

This is the first step to encouraging your children to do physical activities. Help them understand the benefits of it and how they can improve their physical and mental well-being and participate in every activity in school.

2. Plan their schedule ahead

This must be carried out with the help of a child's expert. Plan for activities that are best for your children depending on their age and experience. For example, if your child is starting physical activities for the first time, first motivate them for running or walking and slowly encourage vigorous exercises like hiking or volleyball. Also, keep a note of their other lessons as well so that they won't miss out on other developmental areas.

3. Make sports fun

As physical activity is a daily task, sometimes the children may get bored of this routine work and try to avoid it. Therefore, include ideas to make sports fun like by going out with them, trying other sports or even including family members for a bicycle competition or cricket.

4. Make them comfortable

Many factors such as weather, clothes or sports accessories can make the child uncomfortable and inhibit them from practising their sports. Therefore, provide them with the required equipment so that they play safe and also feel comfortable.

5. Provide them outdoor toys

Outdoor toys like cycles, balls and ropes will encourage your children to stay outside and play and thus, limit their TV or gaming time. Playing with such toys can allow children to run, jump or walk based on the game and thus, promote their cognition.

To Conclude

Physical activities have positive effects on the brain as well as the growing body of children. Not only do their cognitive functions improve, but they are also at reduced risk of chronic and neurodegenerative diseases later in life. Also, physical activities should be a part of daily life, and parents should motivate their children to start it early and continue throughout life.

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