Get smart

As if we need more evidence that schools should bring back daily gym class.

Researchers at the University of Illinois studied 9-10 year-old children with MRIs (no radiation exposure), VO2 treadmill testing, and memory evaluations.

Their findings should spank those in the educational elite who give regular gym class only lip service.

“Dr M, you are an electrophysiologist, you took zero education classes and thus, you don’t know squat about educating children.”  That may be true, but I understand science, and am on the front lines of America’a struggle with fatness, which we are decidedly losing. So let me tell you about this important experiment.

Here’s what happened. First, the kid’s fitness was quantified by treadmill exercise tests. Maximum oxygen uptake cannot be faked. Then, they had head MRIs to measure the volume of the hippocampus—a funny-sounding name for a part of the brain that is known to be important in memory and learning (and some think hyper-activity.)  Finally, for the not-so-fun part: the kids underwent memory testing.

There were three important findings:

  • Physically-fit kids had significantly larger hippocampal volumes.
  • More physically-fit kids had stronger relational memory skills. In other words, they learned better.
  • Importantly, on statistical analysis the link between physical fitness and better memory revealed that hippocampal volume was the key element.

These findings are both believable, and important from a public health standpoint.

It has been previously shown in animal studies that aerobic exercise increases cell proliferation in the hippocampus. And in elderly humans, recent evidence suggests aerobic fitness is associated with larger hippocampal volume and superior memory performance.  And now we have real data in children.  The researchers give us the following conclusion: “The(se) findings are the first to indicate that aerobic fitness may relate to the structure and function of the preadolescent human brain.”

As a cyclist who witnesses the sadness of genetic limitations all the time, I found this quote from the senior author very intriguing (emphasis mine),

The study suggests that taking steps to increase childhood physical activity could have a significant effect on brain development, Kramer said.

“We knew that experience and environmental factors and socioeconomic status all impact brain development,” he said.

“If you get some lousy genes from your parents, you can’t really fix that, and it’s not easy to do something about your economic status. But here’s something that we can do something about,” Kramer said. 

Taking on fatness will require the collaboration of many facets of society. Educators will have a prominent role.  Hopefully, studies like this one will help debunk the common myth that there isn’t time for regular gym class.

“Kids, we have gym everyday; it will make us smarter.”

JMM

4 comments

  1. Physical Education used to be mandatory, what happened to that? WAY back when I was in school I had PE at least 3 days a week and extra curricular activities after school in addition to recess which was constant physical activity. Why are we not doing that today?

  2. So easy to judge others behavior on the surface. Yes, physical education is important, gym is important, physical labor is important. Good eating habits are important. Compassion for others is equally important, if we try to understand the whys. No, I'm not a hourly employee who rushes to daycare to pick up kids. With kids crying trying to decide in a hurry what to feed them, with a fix income, working all day to come home to a small apartment with a non-productive spouse, coming from an abusive home life, now raising my kids in an abusive home. Yes, people make choices in life, and sometimes there is not equal opportunity for all of us. Some of us are now don't have the right genetic code to compete on a high level. Some people can't rise above it and some can. No, some people grow up with no good role models. Maybe, they are just trying to make it through this life. One really smart old school family practice doctor corrected me once, after I made a comment about someone wasting money on the lottery, he said, maybe that is the only hope they have in life. Sad, but maybe it's true. To not have compassion for others, understanding life's demands and now, if I understand your quoted study, saying non-exercising kids are not smart just seems pretty mean and well, not very good manners.

  3. Science is truth. 2+2=4. The drug is better, or worse. The surgery is better, or not. Science and mathematics are not mean, nor do they have bad manners, or any manners for that matter.

    The study showed fit children had bigger areas of the brain than non-fit kids. And this translated to better memory.

    It didn't say sedentary kids were not smart, and I'm not either.

    The implications of the study, if born out in larger studies, is that physical fitness helps kids learn.

    The present dogma seems to be that there is too much other stuff to learn in school. There is not enough time for physical education. I believe the opposite is true: that incorporating allotted time for fitness will help our children learn more, not less, regardless of whether their parents play the lottery, or not.

    And if kids learn to allot time for fitness, then maybe their kids will as well, and so on. A generational change may be needed to pull us out of the obesity quagmire. Might as well start early in life.

    JMM

  4. Look, we don't disagree on the importance of regular exercise. I can debate you on the science is truth statement, we all know the difference between theory and scientific laws, math yes, is pretty much truth, but even higher mathmatical theories are being tested by computers. Look you are a much smarter guy than I am, and maybe I misunderstood your blog, but its just seems mean to assume someone is not smart because they don't exercise is still bad manners. My mother wouldn't let me talk that way. Respect is earned by treating people the way you want to be treated.

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