“Just 20 minutes of walking…”

“Exercise your body, exercise your mind.” I’m seeing more and more articles that confirm what my father used to tell my brothers and me when we were kids. The most recent example: “The Fittest Brains” in The New York Times Magazine, on new research into exercise and kids’ intelligence.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana determined that 9- and 10-year-old children who were more fit (as measured by their performance on treadmill tests) had larger basal ganglia, a part of the brain that we rely on for “executive control” and maintaining attention. A different project by some of the same University of Illinois researchers gave another group of 9- and 10-year-old children tests involving complex memory tasks, and measured other parts of their brains, including the hippocampus. Researchers found that fitter children had “heftier hippocampi,” in writer Gretchen Reynolds’ phrase.

In other words, it appears that aerobic exercise stimulates the brain and makes kids smarter. Even very small amounts of exercise: Other studies, also from the University of Illinois, found that “just 20 minutes of walking” before taking a test raised children’s test scores. This was true even if the children were overweight or not fit.

My father would not be surprised.

The article also mentioned a recently completed study, so new it’s not yet published, that “compared the cognitive impact in young people of running 20 minutes on a treadmill with 20 minutes of playing sports-style video games at a similar intensity.” (Think Wiis.) The runners’ test scores improved afterward. Not the video-game players’.

Virgil will be sorry to hear this last result. Maybe it’s an updated version of what my father invariably said if he caught me or my brothers watching television: “You’ll rot your mind watching that thing.”

I’ve also seen a number of articles on the value of spending time outside — again, with research showing that even small amounts provide benefits to children’s health, attention, happiness.

We seem to need these re-orientations toward what earlier generations might have called the tried and true. Just as invariably as my father would say his piece about watching TV, he’d tack on a suggestion (OK, an order): “Go outside.”

Learn more
The Fittest Brains” (Gretchen Reynolds, The New York Times Magazine, September 19, 2010)

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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