Why Does Physical Inactivity Drain Human Brain Power?

Neuroscience confirms that sedentarism reduces cognitive performance.

Posted Dec 04, 2014

Humans throughout the ages have realized that physical activity leads to creative thinking, new ideas, innovation, and optimum cognitive function. Modern neuroscience has confirmed that moving your body boosts brain power. On the flip side, being physically inactive drains your brain power. This is a universal and timeless phenomenon for people of all ages.

We are no different from our human ancestors. Our bodies are designed to move every day. Unfortunately, our bodies and minds may be short-circuiting in a digital age that by its very nature promotes a lack of daily physical activity. 

The ancient Greeks understood the link between regular physical activity, learning, memory and optimizing cognitive function. Based on the principle of maintaining a Sound Mind in a Sound Body, Aristotle founded the famous Peripatetic School where teaching took place while walking on pathways around the Lyceum. 

Steve Jobs was famous for holding important business meetings while walking because he knew that when the body is in motion the mind does its best thinking. This is true for all of us.

Modern Neuroscience Confirms that Physical Activity Boosts Brain Power at Any Age

Their most recent study from November 2014, “The Importance of Physical Activity and Aerobic Fitness for Cognitive Control and Memory in Children,” was published in Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development.

The researchers of this article included: Laura Chaddock-Heyman, Charles H.Hillman, Neal J.Cohen, and Arthur F.Kramer.

I had a lively discussion with Laura Chaddock-Heyman this afternoon about their new study. In summing up the research she said, "Our work suggests that aerobic fitness and physical activity play a key role in brain and cognitive health during development. We hope our research will encourage children to get moving!" I hope so, too.

The Statistics of Inactivity Are Alarming

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 30 percent of children attended a school in which they were offered physical education daily. The majority of students in the United States of America do not engage in any form of planned physical activity during the school week.

Currently, the  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines call for children to have a minimum of 60 minutes of intermittent physical activity per day. The majority of the 55.5 million American students currently in pre-K  to 12th grade do not engage in any form of planned physical activity during the school week.

Double-Whammy: Forcing a Child to Sit Still All Day Studying for a Test Can Lower Scores

Ironically, the findings of this study indicate that the growing emphasis being put on achieving high scores on standardized tests by not giving students a break to exercise may actually be leading to decreased academic performance.

Across the board, children who are physically fit tend to outperform their less-active peers on cognitive tests of achievement. The researchers found that when compared to their less-fit peers, children who are physically active have larger gray matter brain volumes in the basal ganglia and hippocampus.These brain areas are specifically associated with cognitive control and memory. 

Previous research by the team at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that physical activity increases the structure and function of white matter in the brain. White matter helps the gray matter of various brain regions communicate more fluidly and efficiently.

Other conclusions of this November 2014 study included: 

  • Physically active children have increased concentration and enhanced attention spans when compared to their less active peers.

  • Fitness is related to the ability to inhibit attention to competing stimuli during a task.

  • Regular physical activity helps children stay focused and persevere to complete an assignment.

  • The authors also conclude that regular physical activity can be a non-pharmaceutical intervention for children with ADHD, as well as children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

In a press release, Dr. Charles Hillman, professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and lead author on the current Monographs issue said,

"These results point to the important potential of approaches focusing on physical activity for strengthening children's brain health and educational attainment. It is important for state governments and school administrators to consider this evidence and promote physical activity in the school setting, which is where children spend much of their time."

Conclusion: Small Doses of Physical Activity Pay Huge Dividends at Any Age

Researchers around the globe agree that the the most important thing for people of all ages to do is move their bodies a little bit everyday and make a commitment to avoid a lifestyle of sedentarism. A small amount of physical activity every day is always going to be better than nothing regardless of how young or old you are.

I have written many blog posts about the neuroscience of why physical activity improves cognitive function and boosts brainpower throughout the human lifespan.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

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