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Fitness May Boost Kids' Brainpower

Study found fitter kids had different white matter, which helps brain regions communicate with each other
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WebMD News from HealthDay

By Randy Dotinga

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Aug. 19, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Exercise and brainpower in children may not seem closely related, but a small new study hints that fitness may supercharge kids' minds.

The finding doesn't prove that fitness actually makes children smarter, but it provides support for the idea, the researchers said.

"Our work suggests that aerobically fit and physically fit children have improved brain health and superior cognitive [thinking] skills than their less-fit peers," said study author Laura Chaddock-Heyman, a postdoctoral researcher with the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Hopefully, these findings will reinforce the importance of aerobic fitness during development and lead to additional physical activity opportunities in and out of the school environment."

The researchers launched their study to gain more insight into the connections between fitness and the brain in children. Other research has connected higher levels of fitness to better attention, memory and academic skills, Chaddock-Heyman said.

And two recent studies found that fit kids are more likely to have better language skills and to do better on standardized tests for math and reading.

But there are still mysteries. While moderate exercise boosts brainpower for a few hours -- making it a good idea to work out before a test -- it's not clear how fitness affects the brain in the long term, said Bonita Marks, director of the Exercise Science Teaching Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The chronic impact is less certain and, for health, really the key for future research and health management," she added.

The new study didn't examine any thinking skills, but instead looked only at the brain's "white matter," which helps different brain regions communicate with each other. The researchers scanned the brains of 24 kids aged 9 and 10, and found that white matter was different in the fitter kids, potentially a sign of better-connected brains.

Higher levels of fitness may boost blood flow, increase the size of certain brain areas and improve the structure of white matter, Chaddock-Heyman said.

What do the findings mean in the big picture?

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