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Intensive workouts boost children’s brains

A new study reveals that short bursts of high-intensity exercise can improve working memory and cognitive control in children.
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The first evidence that intensive exercise improves children’s brain power has been published in the journal eLife.

The research, from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, shows that high-intensity training (HIT) is also beneficial for children with suboptimal cardiovascular health and specific genetic variations that can typically put them at a cognitive disadvantage. It can therefore be a promising alternative for those seeking to improve their brain function through more efficient and non-invasive means.

“Previous studies have suggested that long, sustained workout sessions, performed at a moderate intensity for 30 to 40 minutes, are most beneficial to learning and memory,” says first author David Moreau, PhD, Research Associate with the Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland. “We wanted to see if short, intense bursts of exercise could also lead to meaningful cognitive improvements in children, and whether the effect of exercise on the brain is different depending on physical health and other individual characteristics.”

To answer these questions, Moreau and his team recruited 318 children aged 7–13 years to a randomised, placebo-controlled study. At the end of the trial, the scientists analysed the results from 305 of the participants, due to some dropouts and problems in collecting data from others.

The children were first given six tasks representing two cognitive constructs: working memory and cognitive control. Working memory is involved with immediate perceptual and linguistic processing, while cognitive control allows information processing and behaviour to vary from moment to moment depending on current goals. Both constructs are noted for being strong predictors of success in the professional and academic domains.

After completing the tasks, the children were then randomly assigned to a HIT or an active placebo group matched for enjoyment and motivation. A complete workout session lasted for 10 minutes and was scheduled every morning on weekdays for six weeks, translating to five hours of actual exercise.

Following this regime, the children completed the six cognitive tasks again. The researchers then compared their performance and found robust improvements both on their working memory and cognitive control. Participants in the HIT group showed larger improvements following the second round of tasks in comparison to those in the placebo group.

“Our findings highlight the potency of short but intense physical workouts and suggest that aerobic exercise is not the sole means to improve brain power,” Moreau explains.

“It is important to note that physical exercise generally is not a single solution for addressing cognitive deficits – in some cases, more targeted or individualised interventions might be required. However, it remains that exercise is one of the most beneficial and non-invasive ways of enhancing cognition. Furthermore, we’ve shown that it needs not be time-consuming – as little as 5 hours of exercise can lead to sizeable benefits.”

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eLife is a unique collaboration between the funders and practitioners of research to improve the way important research is selected, presented and shared. eLife publishes outstanding works across the life sciences and biomedicine – from basic biological research to applied, translational and clinical studies. All papers are selected by active scientists in the research community. Decisions and responses are agreed by the reviewers and consolidated by the Reviewing Editor into a single, clear set of instructions for authors, removing the need for laborious cycles of revision and allowing authors to publish their findings quickly. eLife is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust. Learn more at elifesciences.org.