Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Exercising Our Minds

On an almost daily basis, we are learning more and more about the benefits of physical activity and fitness. This week, articles in two prominent scientific journals underscore the relationship between physical activity and brain activity.

First, a study that appears in the December 8 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes the impact of physical fitness and cognitive function in more than 1.2 million young men doing military service in Sweden. When compared with less fit peers, physically fit young men performed better on measures of logical thinking and verbal comprehension. They found that cognitive function in identical twins correlated with fitness. Also, cognitive function improved in young men as their level of fitness increased.

Next, a study in the Journal of Mind Brain and Education examined the impact of 30 minutes of physical education on 40 seventh grade girls. After 30 minutes of aerobic activity, the students showed increased ability to ignore distractions and remain on task. The authors quote an earlier study that found that only 6% of American high schools offer daily PE classes. As schools face increasing pressure to prepare students for high stakes testing, PE is often sacrificed. The sad irony is that students actually learn more in classes they attend after participating in physical activity.

At the same time that physical activity is diminishing, screen time is on the rise. There is evidence that American students spend more than 5 hours/day in front of a computer or television screen. We are also seeing a proliferation of computer-based therapeutic interventions for enhancing focus and executive function. Some of these are expensive and time consuming. As parents consider these and other treatments to help their children increase their focus and academic performance, I urge them to start with the simple and natural interventions. Let’s not forget about sleep, nutrition, and EXERCISE.

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