During the holiday season it’s easy to replace outdoor activities with TV, video games and computer screens. Downtime is often much needed, both for the parents and children. However it’s important to keep in mind the benefits of outdoor play and staying active. Tearing across a park, playing tag, racing on a scooter and playing football all have the benefits of tiring out the kids as well as increasing mental performance.
Research has been carried out by Dr. Charles Hillman, a professor at the University of Illinois, who has focused his work on the impact physical exercise has on children’s brain functioning. His work confirms that even short periods of activity can enhance and focus young children’s mental performance.
Dr. Hillman conducted a study with a group of children in their laboratory on two different occasions. One visit comprised of the children doing short bouts of exercise – 20 minutes of fairly vigorous walking on a treadmill. On the other visit the children sat quietly for 20 minutes. After each visit and when the children’s heart rates had returned to normal, the children were given a series of cognitive exercises to complete. One challenge comprised of focusing on a piece of information on a computer screen and ignoring any distractions that pop up. This excursive simulated a situation where a child might be doing their homework and receives a text from a friend. In order to successfully focus on and complete the homework the child will need to ignore the distracting interruption.
The study found that the children performed better after exercise and their brains where more fluent. The neural activity in the frontal and parietal cortex, known to be important for maintaining and controlling our attention spans, was enhanced.
Physical activity has been programmed into our genes due to the fact that our ancestors lived as hunter gatherers. Their daily lives consisted of moving across mountains, plains and flat lands to hunt and gather food necessary for survival. Our minds and bodies therefor evolved within a physically active lifestyle. However, the amount of activity children get nowadays is far below what we a genetically predisposed to. This is particularly true when it comes to the holiday season and the excitement of new consoles, devises and video games means that children spend even more time indoors. Knowing how important even short bouts of exercise is to the body and the mind and the direct impact it has on cognitive functioning, it seems more important than ever to encourage children to move and be active.