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Physical Activity and Brain Development

Exercise - bodily or mental exertion, especially for the sake of training or improvement of health (

Everyone knows that being physically active is important for a healthy lifestyle. But did you know that exercise can lead to academic excellence? With the strong emphasis on academics, studies have shown that with the right amount of exercise, academic performance can be vastly improved. Through neuroscience, it is evident that the brain is the last organ to mature, as brain maturation is completed when an individual reaches their early adulthood. Interestingly, physical activity can improve the brain development of not only children and youth but exercise can also improve cognition in adults as well.

Scientific studies are making it clear that physical activity and brain development are not just related, but they are dependent on one another (Reynolds, 2012). Not only has science proved the positive effect exercise has on cognitive development, but history has also shown the significant impact exercise has on body and mind. Greek and Roman philosophers such as Aristotle, and Marcus Circero emphasized the positive factor exercise has on the mind, body and soul. Also, famous psychologist Jean Piaget developed theories that revolved around brain development and hinted at the importance of exercise.

Even though there has been many political issues around removal of physical activities in schools and improving the academic system, which is quite contradictory, many schools in Canada have put forth programs to encourage students be physically active and healthy. In addition, there are many external programs that are offered outside of school in order to help young people improve their health, most importantly their mental health. Aside from the programs offered, many fun exercises such as skipping, dance, yoga and the hokey-pokey can be done in one's home or at events with family and friends, in order to enhance the brain.

The connection between exercise and cognition has been supported through science, history and the media. Most importantly, being physically active is inexpensive and a great investment for the mind, body and soul.


[edit] Background

There tends to be a stronger emphasis on brain development and academic performances versus physical activity and being physically fit. Many school are suppressing physical education programs in schools due to the political pressure to emphasize academics, most especially math, science and English (Martin. K, 2010). It is well known that physical exercise is important for a healthy lifestyle and to prevent many chronic diseases, but studies have also shown that physical exercise contributes to cognitive development and can be a prime factor for academic excellence (Hillman. C.H, Erickson. K.I and Kramer. A.F, 2008). The effect of physical activity on brain development is an important issue as the brain affects people physically, mentally, and emotionally from conception to death. Neuroscience has proposed that the brain undergoes development until an individual’s reaches their early adulthood (Cotman, Berchtold, & Christie, 2007). Neuroscience also signifies the importance on how an individual’s environment is a prime factor to brain development; a healthy environment will lead to a positive brain outcome and vice versa. What neuroscience does not emphasize is how integrating physical activity into one’s environment contributes to a healthy brain which in turn leads to academic excellence.

[edit] History

Throughout history, exercise has been seen as beneficial to the body but also the mind. Aristotle believed that much could be learned from the body and through physical activity. Around 65 BC, Roman philosopher Marcus Circero famously stated, "It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigor." Clearly the idea that exercise is beneficial for body and mind has been around for a long time.
Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget

However, the idea that physical activity influences the brain's structure and growth is a newer idea. The most commonly used theory of brain development is the theory of cognitive development that was introduced by Jean Piaget in the 1900's. This theory states that one develops cognition through developing schemas (ideas or categories) about their surroundings. Schemas are reinforced through assimilation and created through accommodation. This theory also believes in stages of development, namely the sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational and formal operational (McLeod, 2009). The first stage emphasizes the young child's need for physical activity to grow because knowledge is gained through the senses, by feeling, crawling, and playing. The second stage also emphasizes physical activity because children learn via the physical world and have difficulty forming ideas without seeing physical examples. Thus education of the body is a great way to instruct the mind.

As technology and research advances, the evidence of the impact of physical activity was able to grow. In 1929, Hans Berger used the first EEG, an instrument that records electrical brain activity and is critical to brain research (Haas, 2003). This tool as well as other monitors help us to see direct results of the brain after exercise. The results of this technology are seen in research today.

[edit] Target Audience

It is important to promote the idea of physical activity throughout all age groups, and to give a better understanding of how the brain develops when physical activity is present. Children's brains are at the earliest stages of development, and it is important to incorporate physical activity into their daily lives so that they can reap the benefits and live a healthier lifestyle. As they grow older, physical activity should remain important and a greater understanding of how their body works can lead to more complex physically active concepts, allowing for greater brain development. Furthermore, during the teenage years of life, teachers and students can build upon the concepts already learned, allowing for the ability to become more physically literate. During these years of life (early childhood to teenage years) the brain is the most susceptible to change, as it is a crucial period during the development of the brain. The adult audience is the educators as they can influence and encourage children with their knowledge and understanding of how to grow and develop the brain and body mentally and physical. Therefore, the target audience would be all ages because of the benefits to brain development at each stage in life, but especially educators and children.

[edit] Research

Brain development is such a broad topic that there are many different types of research that can and have been done. Overall, it has been confirmed that physical activity is extremely beneficial for an individual's learning, memory, control, timing, attention, accuracy, and efficiency capabilities. Physical activity also combats against neurodegeneration. Exercise strengthens the underlying systems that support plasticity including neurogenesis, metabolism, and vascular function, all of which are critical for brain development, and is able to increase synaptic plasticity by directly affecting synaptic structure and increasing synaptic strength (Cotman, Berchtold, & Christie, 2007). When analyzing MRI literature, an aging brain showed a progressive deactivation in anti-correlated tasks, which is associated with optimal task performance. If there is a lack of physical activity, the brain will age at a quicker pace due to the lack of correlated activity stimulating the brain. In Illinois, a group of professors conducted an experiment with children of varying fitness levels and judged aerobic ability. It was found out that children with a higher fitness level were much more accurate and had less error, but it was also found that there was little variances in reaction times. The results indicate that higher fitness levels enable the brain to be more accurate and efficient (Hillman, Buck, Pontifex, & Castelli, 2009). This further supports the idea that participating in physical activities earlier in life is not only beneficial to becoming fit but it also enhances brain development. Studies performed by Tomporowski assessed physical activity and cognitive performance in adults. The adults were then separated into three groups depending on the type of exercise and each group was studied according to the information processing theory. Again, the results determined that proper exercise can have great effects on the brain and it's functioning capabilities.

In this video (see right), Princeton University has done a study pertaining to physical activity and re-organizing the brain. The more a person exercises, the better they are able to handle stress. Exercising results in a growth of neurons in the brain, which means there are more excitable neurons. The researchers performed an experiment on two groups of mice: active mice and lazy mice. They were dropped into cold water and their brains reacted very differently. The lazy mice's Immediate Early Genes were activated, which are turned on when neurons are fired. But, the active mice's Immediate Early Genes were not activated, even though they have a higher amount of excitable neurons, because their brains released GABA, a neurotransmitter, which keeps the excitable parts of the brain in place. In Fight or Flight situations, the more active you are the less you need to get worked up because you already possess the strength to get out of that situation. But, if you are in bad shape, your body is going to try to get you worked up to try and get yourself out of trouble safely. Therefore, regular exercise is a great way to get the brain better accustomed to deal with the stresses in life.

[edit] Existing Physical Activities

[edit] School Policy

  • In the school year of 2005, the Ontario ministry of education proposed a (Daily Physical Activity) Program for every elementary school to follow. This ensured that children will participate in 20 minutes of physical activity every school day. The program notes that at least twenty minutes of daily physical activity is critical to making schools a healthier place to learn and improve student achievement. The relation between physical activity and brain development is crucial and can help lead to greater academic performance.
  • The government in British Colombia also made a DPA Program in 2011. The program involves children from kindergarten to grade 12 participating in daily physical activities to help develop endurance, strength and flexibility. Being physically active is crucial because students do not automatically develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes that lead to active,and healthy lifestyles. Additionally, physical activity keeps children alert and ready to learn and it can help improve memory which is beneficial to schools.

[edit] Programs

  • A physical activity program called Brain Balance is being run across the USA. Children with various disabilities are admitted into an individualized program in which they go to a center three times weekly and do exercises at their home. Brain Balance focuses on improving a child’s motor, sensory and academic skills that in turn will strengthen the brain as it develops.
  • All across Canada is a grassroots program called RunJumpThrow. This program develops the fundamental skills necessary to participate in various activities and sports. Research has shown the positive effects of running and physical activity on the mind especially in terms of developing the brain and improving memory. Giving children a positive experience with physical activity at a young age will lead to more physical activity later on. Physical activity also gives children a feeling of euphoria and this translates into a positive outlook on the rest of life.
  • Rope-Skipping Canada is an excellent program which uses a simple activity to promote healthy lifestyles and a positive attitude towards physical activity. This provides an ample environment for brain development. This program also encourages creativity which can help the brain develop and it develops life skills, and confidence in oneself.

[edit] Exercises

  • Yoga is an activity that can be done just about anywhere. Many cities offer different yoga programs and this form of physical activity is very beneficial to the mind. In 2013, Gothe, Pontifex, Hillman & McAuley proved that 20 minutes of yoga enhanced memory recall, reaction time, and response accuracy dramatically compared to no exercise or running. Yoga also can help one relax, which is important because the brain needs rest in order to grow. Yoga also helps focus the mind on one thing at a time, a mental skill easily transferred to other parts of life.

[edit] Best Practice Activity Suggestions

There are many different physical activities that can help with cognitive development and they vary in time commitment and difficulty. There are simpler tasks such as “musical pots” and “hide-and-go-seek” to more complex tasks such as skipping and dancing. These tasks will range depending on age and skill development but it is important to understand that the main emphasis of these physical activities is constant variety and new stimulation of the brain because “intelligence is what we use when we don’t already know what to do” (Piaget, J.).

Some practical activities that help develop mental cognition in youth are described as follows.

[edit] Jump Rope

In the past most people undervalued skipping as an important physical activity as it was seen as “a little girls’ schoolyard game.” However, now, it is highly regarded as one of the best total body workouts around. What most people do not know is that it is incredibly good for brain development as well. Participants who partake in skipping enhance their gross motor skills, improve their coordination and concentration and quicken their reflexes. This is due to the constant motion, changes in pace and increased difficulty as the participant gets better. An advantage of skipping is that it can be done inside, outside, by oneself or with friends. Furthermore, there are many different games that can be played that incorporate the development of these skills, and this is beneficial for children with short attention spans. For younger children, swinging the rope slowly and concentrating on double footed hops may be easier for learning. As the child progresses in the activity, they can learn different maneuvers such as crisscrossing the rope, single footed hops and double-dutch.

[edit] Dancing

Dancing has always been a way for people to exercise, have fun and express emotion. Recently, studies have shown that dancing also improves mental development and helps prevent memory loss. Dancing at a young age will teach children all of the fundamental movements including body awareness, space awareness, effort and relationships. These four fundamentals of movement teach kids how their body is moving, where it is going, with whom or what they are moving relative to and how the movements are occurring. These skills, along with instantaneous decision making based on emotion felt through the music, stimulate many different parts of the brain which helps improve coordination, concentration, balance and many more cognitive functions.

[edit] Catching, Throwing and Kicking

Catching, throwing and kicking are all significant skills when it comes to brain development. These skills teach kids how to manipulate their body in different ways in order to have a more powerful throw or a more accurate kick depending on how they stand or their release. They also learn coordination and attention skills. They learn coordination by stepping with the opposite leg to get more power when kicking and they learn attention skills by concentrating solely on the task at hand. The skills learned from this practice can lead into the development of future formal games such as tennis, soccer, hockey and so on. If children at a younger age are timid of using a ball it may be beneficial to use a smaller, softer ball to begin, or even a balloon. These tools will still promote coordination and concentration but in a more comfortable environment for the child. Once their confidence boosts, they can begin using a real ball.
Playing on the jungle gym is a great way to get some fresh air, make new friends and improve brain development.
Playing on the jungle gym is a great way to get some fresh air, make new friends and improve brain development.

[edit] Exploring the Jungle Gym

Yet another activity found useful for encouraging brain development in children is exploring the jungle gym. Not only is this activity favorable because it gets kids out of the house, it is strongly linked to critical thinking and problem solving. Children learn how to climb using different systems of transference as well as deciding how to get from point A to point B using different difficult manoeuvers. The freedom of exploration of the jungle gym also encourages independence while still developing coordination and balance.

[edit] Simon Says and the Hokey-Pokey

Many people played “Simon Says” or did the “Hokey-Pokey” when they were younger. Not only were these fun activities, they were also taught a lot. Playing “Simon Says” increases children’s attention skills, their concentration skills and their balance. During the game the child must continually follow instruction (hop on one foot while your eyes are closed) while being aware of the next action being called and whether or not Simon says to do so. Having to concentrate on the task at hand as well as what is or is not to follow is great stimulation for the brain. Similarly, while doing the “Hokey-Pokey” children are practicing their attention skills by following the instructions of the song, but they also have the freedom to express themselves as they dance to the music.

This is just a small list of the physical activities that are available to help promote brain development. Further information about these games and others can be found in the external links section.

[edit] Future Directions

Although there are many studies that show that physical activity improves cognitive development, many people are skeptical about these findings because they do not describe how it all happens. For this reason it would be beneficial for future studies in exercise physiology and/or cognitive development to concentrate their research on neuroscience and how activity affects the brain, where it affects the brain and the importance of the affects on the brain. If stronger results are developed and proven, people will be more inclined to promote daily physical activity. Parents can encourage their children to turn off the television and schools can integrate physical activity into other subjects such as using hopscotch to promote mental math skills or skipping while learning to spell in English.
In the film "Akeelah and the Bee", Keke Palmer uses skipping as a tool to help her learn and remember how to spell new words.
In the film "Akeelah and the Bee", Keke Palmer uses skipping as a tool to help her learn and remember how to spell new words.

[edit] External Links

For more information on the positive link between exercise and cognitive development please view the links below:

Download this document - Brain boost: Sports and physical activity enhance children learning

Cognitive Brain Training Exercise

Exercise programs for people with dementia

5 workouts for your brain

Fun Physically Active Games for Children of all Ages

More exercise could be simple solution to help prevent mental illness

Mental Health Foundation: Exercise and Mental Health

An article from Earlychildhood News emphasizes the importance of movement and activity on the development of the brain and motor skills of the early child at

[edit] Notes and References

Bjørnebekk, A., Mathé, A.A. & Brené, S. (2005). The antidepressant effect of running is associated with increased hippocampal cell proliferation. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 8(3), 357-68.

Cotman, C.W., Berchtold, N.C., Christie, L. (2007) Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. Trends in Neuroscience, Vol.30 No.9. Elsevier. Pp. 464-472.

exercise. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved March 22, 2014, from website:

Gothe, N., Pontifex, M., Hillman, C. & McAuley, E. (2013). The acute effects of yoga on executive function. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 10. pp. 488-495.

Haas, L. F. (2003). Hans Berger (1873–1941), Richard Caton (1842–1926), and electroencephalography, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 74(1), 9. doi:10.1136/jnnp.74.1.9

Hillman, C.H., Buck, S.M., Themanson, J.R., Pontifex, M.B., & Castelli, D.M. (2009). Aerobic fitness and cognitive development: event-related brain potential and task performance indices of executive control in preadolescent children. "Developmental Psychology, 45"(1). 114-129. doi: 10.1037/a0014437

Hillman. C.H., Erickson. K.I. and Kramer. A.F., (2008) Be smart, exercise your heart: Exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews|Neuroscience, Vol.9 No.9. Nature Publishing Group. Pp. 58-65.

Kidspot Australia. (n.d.). Physical Learning Games. Retrieved March 17, 2014, from

Martin K. Sport and physical activity enhance children’s learning. 2010; available online: [1]; Department of Education and Training (Government of Western Australia).

McLeod, S. A. (2009). Jean Piaget. Retrieved from

Piaget, J. (2006, August 18). Journal of Research in Science TeachingVolume 2, Issue 3, Article first published online: 18 AUG 2006. Cognitive development in children: Piaget development and learning. Retrieved March 15, 2014, from

Powers, R. (2010, July 30). Dancing Makes You Smarter. Stanford Dance. Retrieved March 23, 2014, from

Reynolds, G. (2012, April 18). How exercise could lead to a better brain. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Siegler, R. (2006). How children develop, Exploring child develop student media tool kit & scientific American reader to accompany how children develop. New York: Worth Publishers.

The Human Brain - Exercise. (n.d.). Science Learning. Retrieved March 15, 2014, from

Tomporowski, P.D. (2003). Effects of acute bouts of exercise on cognition. Acta Psychologica, 112(3), 297-324.</nowiki>

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