Brain development linked to fitness: Getting kids to exercise

Little Creations Yoga Class by Axel Bührmann My kids love playing video games and watching Spongebob Squarepants. Even though they also enjoy sports and playing in the park, it's sometimes a battle to get them to turn off the screens and go outside! There's plenty of research evidence on the importance of physical activity, though (not to mention the possible negative impact of too much screen time) - physical activity is often recommended for people coping with anxiety or depression, and joining a sports team can even help shy kids to overcome social anxiety. Last year, a study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology reported that exercise can improve the self-esteem of overweight kids. So obviously, I'm motivated to get my kids off the couch and into a physical activity.

Recently, researchers found evidence that physical fitness affects brain development and memory skills!

In a study to be published in an upcoming issue of Brain Research, Laura Chaddock and her colleagues found that 9 and 10 year-olds who were more physically fit had a larger hippocampal volumes than kids who were less fit. The hippocampus is a brain area involved in memory and spacial navigation. In addition, the fit kids performed better on tests of relational memory, or the ability to recall connections between things. Even though this study included only a small group of children, similar links between exercise and hippocampal volume have been found previously, both in studies of animals and in elderly people.

So in addition to its positive effects on physical and mental health, exercise also has a positive impact on brain development, according to Chaddock and her colleagues. So how can parents get their kids to put down the remote and pick up a bat and ball? If I could answer that question conclusively, I'd be a wealthy man! But even though there are no surefire ways to get your kids exercising, psychologists have lots of ideas about how to change behaviour:

Make it as easy as possible. It's likely to be easier to increase the frequency of something your kids already do than to start something totally new. If they play soccer once per week, going outside with them to kick a ball around at other times makes sense.

Make it as fun as possible. It's sometimes hard to find extracurriculars that kids are interested in doing, but many municipalities have lists of teams and clubs that can be found online. The YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other organizations also offer a range of activities. If your kids aren't interested in any of these (or they don't fit into your schedule) making a habit of playing an active game with them a couple of times weekly might fit the bill.

For young kids, parental involvement can often be extremely motivating. Watching their games and practices, or volunteering in their sport of choice might be encouraging. My kids love tossing a frisbee around, but they'll only do it if I go with them! It's surprising how much exercise a parent can get from chasing their kids' wild frisbee throws ...

Set a goal. It might be, "Go to the park on Saturdays," or, "Play soccer twice per week." The goal might motivate you and the kids to get moving on days when you're tired or busy.

Here are a few suggestions from one of my earlier posts about motivating kids to exercise:

  • Start them young, if possible. Encouraging an active lifestyle when kids are young may be protective against the possible onset of depressive symptoms.
  • Show them the benefits. As kids approach the teen years, you may be able to help them to understand the importance of exercise in helping them to feel better. This might help to get them off the couch.
  • Find the fun. Find an activity your child enjoys, or create a menu of games for them to choose from.
  • Set an example. Your child may be more likely to engage in the activity if you do it with them. Remember – we’re talking about less than an hour of activity. It might not be possible for everyone’s schedule on a daily basis, but if you can join with your kids sometimes, it might tip the scales toward activity.
  • Be consistent. Set up a schedule that’s reasonable, with activities occurring at about the same time every day. Hang it up where your child will see it.
  • Track it. Keep records of your child’s activity and their progress. This doesn’t have to be their weight – you could track their highest number of consecutive jumps over the skipping rope.
  • You can find Chaddock's study here.

    Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.