Physical fitness boosts math skills in kids

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Published: August 14, 2015 9:28:06 AM

Parents, take note! If you want your kids to do better in math, make them do aerobic exercise.

Parents, take note! If you want your kids to do better in math, make them do aerobic exercise.

Scientists have found for the first time that aerobic fitness can enhance math skills in children by aiding the development of brain structures that contribute to mathematics achievement.

The study showed that 9 and 10-year-old children who are aerobically fit tend to have significantly thinner grey matter and do better on math tests than their “low-fit” peers.

“Grey-matter thinning is the sculpting of a fully formed, healthy brain. The theory is that the brain is pruning away unnecessary connections and strengthening useful connections,” said Laura Chaddock-Heyman, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois.

Previous studies have shown that grey-matter thinning is associated with better reasoning and thinking skills, Chaddock-Heyman said.

“We show, for the first time, that aerobic fitness may play a role in this cortical thinning,” she said.

“In particular, we find that higher-fit 9- and 10-year-olds show a decrease in grey-matter thickness in some areas known to change with development, specifically in the frontal, temporal and occipital lobes of the brain,” she said.

The analysis included 48 children, all of whom had completed a maximal oxygen-uptake fitness test on a treadmill.

Half of the children (the higher-fit kids) were at or above the 70th percentile for aerobic fitness, and half (the lower-fit kids) were at or below the 30th percentile.

The researchers imaged the children’s brains using MRI, and tested their math, reading and spelling skills using the Wide Range Achievement Test-3, which correlates closely with academic achievement in these fields.

The team found differences in math skills and cortical brain structure between the higher-fit and lower-fit children.

In particular, thinner grey matter corresponded to better math performance in the higher-fit kids. No significant fitness-associated differences in reading or spelling aptitude were detected.

“These findings arrive at an important time. Physical activity opportunities during the school day are being reduced or eliminated in response to mandates for increased academic time,” said Charles Hillman, professor of kinesiology and community health, at University of Illinois.

“Given that rates of physical inactivity are rising, there is an increased need to promote physical activity,” Hillman said.

“An important next step in this research is to establish a causal relationship between brain changes, changes in physical fitness and changes in cognition and school achievement – something we are currently doing with a longitudinal study of children participating in a physical activity training programme,” said Art Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute for Science and Technology, University of Illinois.

The study was published in the journal PLOS One.

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