By Dan Heyman
Keeping kids active not only keeps their bodies healthy but also their brains, according to new research.
“White matter” describes the bundles of axons that carry nerve signals from one area of the brain to another. Laura Chaddock-Heyman and other researchers at the University of Illinois found a link between physical fitness and the integrity of white matter tracks in the brains of 9- and 10-year-old children.
It doesn’t mean physically-fit kids are smarter, Chaddock-Heyman said, but perhaps their brains work better. “It does seem that the white-matter tracks in higher-fit children are more structurally compact, or stronger or more fibrous compared to their lower-fit peers,” she said, “which would most likely lead to a more efficient brain structure.” She said previous research has shown an association between improved aerobic fitness and gains in cognitive function, on specific tasks and in academic settings.
Chaddock-Heyman said she hopes the research encourages families to exercise and stay active, and that it opens discussion in the community about public health and education.
“We’re hoping that schools, instead of minimizing or eliminating physical activity during the school day, will include more physical education programs and physical activity opportunities in the classroom,” she said. The researchers are taking the findings further in a controlled trial to determine if white-matter integrity improves in kids who start a new exercise routine and maintain it over time. The findings, reported in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, are online at journal.frontiersin.org.