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Exercise benefits many aspects of cognitive function. Evidence suggests that children who engage in physical activity typically perform better in school. Findings from a 2011 study showed that exercise improved cognitive function in overweight children.

The intervention study involved 171 sedentary, overweight children between the ages of 7 and 11 years old. The authors of the study enrolled the children into one of three programs: a “low dose” 20-minute exercise program, a “high-dose” 40-minute exercise program, or a control (sedentary) program. The exercise programs were provided on school days only, for approximately three months. None of the children received any additional tutoring beyond their normal lessons. At the end of the intervention, the children took standardized cognition and achievement tests. Twenty of the children underwent functional MRI (fMRI) testing.

The results of the standardized tests demonstrated that exercise improved the children’s cognitive function in a dose-dependent manner. Intelligence scores increased among the children in the exercising groups, especially among those in the high dose (40-minute) group, whose scores increased approximately 3.8 points. No improvements were observed among those in the control group.

Analysis of the fMRIs revealed that the exercising children exhibited higher levels of activity in their prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with complex thinking, decision making, and social behavior – indicators of improved cognitive skills.

These findings suggest that exercise can benefit children’s cognitive performance and underscore the importance of physical activity programs in schools.

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