Study: Exercise Improves Intelligence in Schoolchildren

A new study suggests that regular exercise improves intelligence and academic performance in overweight and obese schoolchildren.

The study, led by the University of Granada, analyzed the effects of a 20-week aerobic and resistance exercise program that consisted of three supervised 90-minute sessions per week in an out-of-school setting.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed JAMA Network Open, included 109 children with overweight or obesity aged eight to eleven. Of all participants, 90 children completed the postexercise evaluation and attended 70% or more of the recommended exercise sessions.

The research found that exercise significantly improved intelligence and cognitive flexibility, which is a person's mental ability to adapt to changing tasks or rules, maintain multiple concepts simultaneously, and shift attention between different tasks or rules.

To a smaller extent, exercise improved academic performance, especially in mathematics and problem-solving. According to the researchers, the study suggests that "an active lifestyle before puberty may lead to more successful life trajectories."

Francisco Ortega, professor at the University of Granada and principal investigator for the study, says that these findings convey an important message for parents.

"If your children do not perform well academically, do not punish them by not playing out or exercising, or withdraw them from an after-school sports activity, do just the opposite," he said in a press release.

According to Ortega, it is necessary to try to ensure a minimum of daily physical exercise. Ideally, it should be 60 minutes per day of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, including at least three days a week of high-intensity physical activity and also activities that stimulate muscle and bone strengthening.

"If we could increase the number of hours of physical education up to one hour daily, as is already done in other European countries and is being demanded in Spain, we could improve the physical and mental health of children and, as this study demonstrates, also the intelligence, cognitive and academic performance," Ortega says.

Researchers also note that overweight and obesity are major health problems in the developed and developing world. For example, in the US, one in five children and adolescents aged 2-19 have obesity.


JAMA Network Open. Effects of an Exercise Program on Brain Health Outcomes for Children With Overweight or Obesity.

University of Granada. Schoolchildren who exercise are smarter and perform better academically.

CDC. Prevalence of Childhood Obesity in the United States.

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