Exercise for children may do far more than improve physical fitness. It may also stimulate brain growth and boost cognitive performance. How do we know?
Lessons from mice
At the Salk Institute, Henriette van Pragg and her colleagues compared sedentary mice with mice that ran an average of 3 miles each night on a running wheel (van Pragg et al 1999).
Compared with the couch potatoes, the aerobically-challenged mice showed dramatic brain growth.
Specifically, the hippocampus—-a brain region associated with learning and memory–was twice as large.
In addition, the brain cells of the aerobic mouse could sustain longer bouts of “long-term potentiation,” the increased efficiency of communication between neurons that occurs after neurons fire.
Better learning, too
Did these changes translate into better learning? Indeed they did. Mice who exercised performed better on a spatial learning task (finding their way through a water maze)
Why does it work?
Exercise is known to improve mood. Might that explain these results? Perhaps animals learn better when they feel better.
The explanation sounds plausible and may account for some of the effect. But it seems pretty clear there is more going on.
Since the late 1990s, research has revealed that aerobic exercise
- boosts levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a substance essential for the growth of brain cells
- stimulates neurogenesis—the birth of new neurons
- mobilizes the expression of genes that are believed to enhance brain plasticity—i.e., the ability of the brain to change its neural pathways
- prevents brain tissue loss in older adults