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Physical fitness boosts brainpower in kids, study finds

By Karen Kaplan

5:57 PM EDT, September 11, 2013

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Forget that stereotype about the dumb jock. A new study reveals that kids who are more physically fit score higher on geography tests, too.

Previous research has found that out-of-shape kids get lower grades in school and perform worse on tasks involving memory and other types of cognitive function. In addition, mice that exercise have better spatial learning and memory than sedentary mice.

For the new study, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wondered whether there was a correlation between physical fitness and learning. So they recruited 48 kids who were 9 or 10 years old and asked them to learn the names of 10 fictional regions on a made-up map.

Half of the children in the study ranked in the top 30% of fitness (as measured by a treadmill test) for kids their age and gender; the other half ranked in the bottom 30%. Other than that, the kids in both groups were basically the same in terms of socioeconomic status, ADHD symptoms and scores on an intelligence test. In both groups, about half were boys and half were girls.

The children spent one day using iPads to learn the geography of the fictitious maps. In some cases, the learning was reinforced by short quizzes; in others, there was only memorization. Their recall was tested the following day.

Overall, the kids who were physically fit got an average score of 54.2% and the kids who were not fit got an average score of 44.2%. The difference was more pronounced when children were asked to remember the map they had learned without the benefit of quizzes – the fit kids scored 43% on average, while the unfit kids scored 25.8% on average.

Those results suggested to the researchers that “higher levels of fitness have their greatest impact in the most challenging situations.” They also speculated that most of the benefits of being physically fit come into play when a child is committing new information to memory, and not as much when that information is recalled later.

The study was published online Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

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