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After-school exercise programs sharpen cognition skills in prepubescent children

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Health experts have long recommended that children get sufficient amounts of exercise as engaging in physical activities can help keep them fit and reduce their odds of becoming obese, a condition that could lead to unwanted health effects.

A new research published in the journal Pediatrics on Sept. 29 has added a new reason why children should be encouraged to get moving. The findings suggest that being physically active also helps the brains of prepubescent children.

For the study, Charles Hillman, from the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois, and colleagues involved 221 preadolescent children between 7 and 9 years old, half of whom were assigned to participate in an after-school physical activity (PA) program called Fitness Improves Thinking in Kids or FITKids for a period of nine months.

After nine months, the researchers found that the children in the FITKids group were more physically fit than the other participants. Compared with the children in the control group, Hillman and colleagues also found that those who participated in the physical program showed improved thinking skills and significantly enhanced their ability to pay attention, multitask and avoid distraction.

"Kids in the intervention group improved two-fold compared to the wait-list kids in terms of their accuracy on cognitive tasks," Hillman said. "And we found widespread changes in brain function, which relate to the allocation of attention during cognitive tasks and cognitive processing speed."

Hillman also noted that the improvements they have observed in the children were the effects of small changes to their physical activities pointing out that the change in the children's fitness was only approximately 6 percent.

The researchers said that the findings of the study indicate the positive effects of physical activities on children's cognitive and brain health.

"These findings demonstrate a causal effect of a PA program on executive control, and provide support for PA for improving childhood cognition and brain health," the researchers wrote.

Other health experts concurred saying that Hillman and colleagues' study provides additional evidence that physical activity does help improve children's school performance and which should encourage parents and educator to get children involved in sports and games that involve movement.

"It might actually help," said Catherine Davis, a pediatrics professor at Georgia Regents University. "I think that parents need to go to the educators and say, 'Why is my child sitting down for six hours a day when he's a 7-year-old boy and he needs to move?" 

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