Can exercise make your kids smarter?

Two new studies have found that fitter kids did better on tests and actually had bigger parts of their brains from the exercise.

Researchers at the University of Illinois sorted kids by fitness level and then tested the most fit and the least fit. The kids had to watch directional arrows and push certain keys which showed the scientist how well they could filter out unnecessary info and attend to relevant cues.

From The New York Times:

“Previous studies found that fitter kids generally scored better on such tests. And in this case, too, those children performed better on the tests. But the M.R.I.’s provided a clearer picture of how it might work. They showed that fit children had significantly larger basal ganglia, a key part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and “executive control,” or the ability to coordinate actions and thoughts crisply. Since both groups of children had similar socioeconomic backgrounds, body mass index and other variables, the researchers concluded that being fit had enlarged that portion of their brains.”

“Meanwhile, in a separate, newly completed study by many of the same researchers at the University of Illinois, a second group of 9- and 10-year-old children were also categorized by fitness levels and had their brains scanned, but they completed different tests, this time focusing on complex memory. Such thinking is associated with activity in the hippocampus, a structure in the brain’s medial temporal lobes. Sure enough, the M.R.I. scans revealed that the fittest children had heftier hippocampi.”

The article also says that past University of Illinois studies have found that just 20 minutes of walking before a test raised scores even if the kids were unfit or overweight.

Our school always had us send in brain food before the CRCT maybe we needed to march them around outside before they started.

There are some schools that start their day on the playground instead of with morning work in the classroom. I’ve always thought it was a great way for kids to get the wiggles out of their pants before they start class, but maybe it would actually make them perform better all day to start with some exercise. (Remember that Japanese trend from the 1980s where employees exercised together before work started. HMM.)

It also seems to make sense that parts of their brains would be bigger from the exercise . I’m clearly not a doctor but I would guess that exercise would increase blood flow which would help those tissues in the brain flourish. (Just a guess!) Also maybe getting their oxygen level higher increases their alertness for the tests.

So what do you think? Are you surprised that exercise can have an impact on how intelligent your kids are? Do you think more schools should increase their PE time or start their days on the playground instead of with morning work before the bell rings? Should they walk them around before tests?

Knowing this info will you try to get your kids more exercise – if not for their heart health or to prevent obesity, just so they can be smarter?

21 comments Add your comment


September 16th, 2010
6:32 am

Even if exercise doesn’t make kids more intelligent, it does provide short-term gains in classroom performance by providing increased blood flow and release of endorphins. It improves focus, and makes us happy. When I administer the CRCT, we start with jumping jacks and twirling, and do “aerobic Simon Says” during the break. When the weather is nice and my 6th graders are clearly having a pre-or post-lunch slump, I take them out for three or four minutes—-WE run about 50 yards to a tree and back—and they come back in happy and ready to focus. I don’t know about changes in basal ganglia and hippocampi, but in my opinion, exercise at various points during the day is beneficial……to everybody.


September 16th, 2010
6:35 am

By the way, I used to teach elementary school—now I’m at a middle school—and I really miss recess. Really. I think everybody in every profession should have a few minutes to go outside and run around with no particular reason other than to run around.


September 16th, 2010
6:48 am

Rotuine exercise has a plethora of benefits. We’re willing to give our kids drugs to change their behavior, but we can’t find time for PE and recess. It’s such a simple cheap way to make a positive change in your life. Kids who are active (sports, band, clubs, whatever) tend to have fewer “issues” like being sexually active, drinking, truancy, drugs, crime, etc. It also works for adults.

Only if...

September 16th, 2010
7:05 am

…they are mental exercises…

PE specialist

September 16th, 2010
7:30 am

check out “Spark” by John Ratey. he’s already proven this theory and is speaking on 9/23 at the Laudermilk Center downtown. Exercise in the morning is one of the best suggestions for ADHD students.

Sorry, PE Specialist, but...

September 16th, 2010
7:37 am

…what you just suggested is that exercise in the morning helps ADHD students “focus” more, not makes them “smarter”.

Yes, I know, (with apologies to ‘Cool Hand Luke’) what we have here is a failure to communicate over semantics in this discussion…


September 16th, 2010
8:18 am

Hmmmm….. how about Stephen Hawking? How about all the college football players who can’t even graduate? I don’t think so…..


September 16th, 2010
8:40 am

Thanks for writing about this today – it’s perfect timing for me. I homeschool my kids and we run 2 miles, 3 times a week. They asked me just yesterday why I make them do run. I explained to them why we run, but today I will read this blog to them. They also have a math test this morning and since we run MWF, I will have them do some good cardio before the test. I didn’t realize it was good to exercise before school, I just knew it was good to exercise. Thanks!


September 16th, 2010
9:53 am

Don’t know that it will make kids smarter, but it might make them feel better, which may make them want to study more?? Yes, I do think that kids should have more PE time..My two only get like 30 mins. per week recess..I don’t think that a child should have to sit 8 hours per day and do school work, especially when they aren’t allowed to talk during lunch..Just my opinion…


September 16th, 2010
9:58 am

Why are people always surprised when exercise is good for you? :-)


September 16th, 2010
10:00 am

Which came first–the increased executive function or the athletics? I am betting it is the former. A kid with increased executive function tends to be more athletic, rather than the other way around. Correlation does not equal causation, and when it does sometimes what we think is the stimulating event is really the result. Too many dumb “research studies” that jump to poor conclusions. Read critically, people!


September 16th, 2010
10:45 am

@ catlandy: I agree too many dumb research studies that jump to poor conclusions. Example: Baby Einstein and Mozart Baby Music – they sure sold a lot of classical music CD’s with that one!


September 16th, 2010
11:21 am

@Photius..Like the study I read about a couple of weeks ago..They have “discovered” that the more you drink, the better looking it makes people of the opposite sex..REALLY?? I could of told them that many years ago..

Like the old C & W song says...

September 16th, 2010
11:32 am

…”all the women get better looking at closing time”…


September 16th, 2010
11:40 am

All the girls get prettier at closing time
They all began to look like movies stars
All the girls get prettier at closing time
When the change starts taking place
It puts a glow on every face
Of the fallen angles of the backstreet bars..


September 16th, 2010
11:41 am



September 16th, 2010
12:38 pm

Greetings from SLC…

I immediately thought of the oxygen flow, to the brain, when I read today’s topic. This, from the web site Brain Rule:

Exercise increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. One of the most interesting findings of the past few decades is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental sharpness.

Also a good reason for Seniors to stay active, instead of sitting around all dayf.

Of course, I was accused of not having good reading comprehension on yesterday’s blog…so what do I know…LOL.

I always get my kids to move around and wiggle before we get to the meat of the topic.


September 17th, 2010
7:04 am

Let God will be done thru this blog


September 19th, 2010
12:22 pm

So, fitter kids tend to do better in school? Ok. Fitter kids TEND to be higher income kids who compete in after school activities. Higher income kids (you know I mean kids from parents of higher income) tend to be more successful in school. So, can we say that being fitter leads to better grades? No, there are intervening variables that contribute to this! Please stay away from simplistic reports and studies (and let’s quit funding them!)


September 19th, 2010
11:01 pm

Catlady, according to the article, the children studied had similar socioeconomic backgrounds and BMIs (which shows they were trying to isolate exercise’s effect on the brain, regardless of the child’s weight). I haven’t read more than what’s here on either of the studies, but I don’t see anything that indicates they were simplistic/flawed and should not have been funded.

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