Regular physical activity linked to more 'fit' preteen brain
Exercise has many health benefits. A new study from Boston Children's Hospital adds another benefit: Physical activity appears to help organize children's developing brains.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data to estimate the strength and organizational properties of the children's brain circuits. These measures determine how efficiently the brain functions and how readily it can adapt to changes in the environment.

The preteen years are a very important time in brain development. They are associated with a lot of changes in the brain's functional circuits, particularly those supporting higher-level thought processes. Unhealthy changes in these areas can lead to risky behaviors and long-lasting deficits in the skills needed for learning and reasoning.

The team combined these data with information on the children's physical activity and sports involvement, supplied by the families, as well as body mass index (BMI).

Being active multiple times per week for at least 60 minutes had a widespread positive effect on brain circuitry. Children who engaged in high levels of physical activity showed beneficial effects on brain circuits in multiple areas essential to learning and reasoning. These included attention, sensory and motor processing, memory, decision making, and executive control.

In contrast, increased BMI tended to have detrimental effects on the same brain circuitry. However, regular physical activity reduced these negative effects.

"In preteens, a number of brain functions are still developing, and they can be altered by a number of risk factors. Our results suggest that physical activity has a positive protective effect across brain regions."

Cerebral Cortex