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Children who exercise regularly have a bigger hippocampus and thus an improved memory.
In the age of the intellect, it may not be surprising if people do not exercise regularly. What does it matter to an intellectual career if you are not in your peak physical fitness, as long as you are healthy and in reasonable shape? Recent scientific research, however, says there is a connection. Fit people tend to be better off intellectually, no matter what their age. And fitter children tend to have better brains, literally and figuratively.
Art Kramer, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, the US, has been studying the influence of exercise on brains for a long time now. Like everyone else, he has been noticing links between the mind and exercise.
Recently, he set out to measure something others have not done so far with children’s brains: how their size responds to exercise. Kramer found out something that should make all educators sit up and take notice: fit children have a bigger hippocampus in the brain and perform better on memory tests. Says Kramer, “Brain size and function improve significantly with physical fitness.”
Kramer’s was the first study that tried to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to correlate brain sizes and physical fitness. Other studies previously have shown a correlation between exercise and academic performance in children. Kramer himself had earlier shown a correlation between exercise and brain size in older people.
Exercise has been shown to be beneficial in recovery after brain radiation treatment. Exercise has been also seen to be good for treating schizophrenia, depression and other brain-related problems. The link between physical fitness and mental fitness seem to be quite strong, and also in an unexpected manner.
Recent research in neuroscience has shown a strong correlation between brain size and performance. Although it seems to contradict common sense, neuroscientists have seen a link between brain size and mental ability, on occasions even intelligence. While this may be true even for overall brain size, the link seems to be strong for parts of the brain that seem to increase volume with certain activity. Neuroscientists have been focusing on the hippocampus because it is critical to several functions like long-term memory and spatial ability.
The size of the hippocampus is seen to increase with certain activity. For example, certain areas of the region are large in experienced taxi drivers. This is not surprising because specific skills are seen to increase the size of specific areas of the brain. However, current research on exercise goes beyond skills. It is about overall fitness, and it is seen to increase the size as well as improve the function of parts of the brain.
Kramer’s studies mainly pertained to aerobic exercise, the most well-studied form of exercise. He used a tested and reliable method of determining fitness: a person’s ability to use oxygen while running on a treadmill. Those who used oxygen more efficiently are fitter. This is supposed to be the gold standard in determining physical fitness. Kramer and his team worked with 49 children, of whom the fitter ones had a 12 per cent larger hippocampus. He also made the children perform memory tests, and the fitter children also scored better on those. Those who had a bigger hippocampus also performed better.
In another recent study, Lesley Cottrell of the University of West Virginia analysed over two years the link between physical fitness and academic performance, from fifth grade to seventh grade. She separated the students into groups, those who maintained their fitness levels over the two-year period, those who gained and those who lost it. She then analysed their academic performance during the period. Those who maintained their fitness were the best. Those who improved on it came second, and those who lost it came third. Those who remained unfit were in the last group.
Although this study did not look at brain sizes, the study size was large enough — 725 students — to be taken seriously. It also sent home a message, one that Kramer’s study substantiated. “In these times of tight budgets, it is the budget for physical education that is cut first,” says Kramer. “We should reconsider this policy.” Fit children are seen to carry their fitness into adulthood. The American Heart Association recommends 60 minutes of physical activity for children and adults.
Neuroscientists had also looked at older people and found roughly the same correlation as in children. The brain function, as measured by its chemistry, also improved in several studies. In animals, the size of the cerebellum — a brain part that is important for maintaining balance — increased with exercise. Blood flow improved as well.
Human studies are not as thorough, but they suggest the same pattern. Neuroscientists are now trying to see how the ability to tackle physically challenging tasks can correlate with the ability to tackle mentally challenging tasks.
It is early days yet, but the message is clear: physical activity is essential for maintaining an active mental life.
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