Moving for a Better Mind Physical education expert finds physical activity boosts children’s cognitive health
May 1st. 2013

Dr. Darla Castelli and Dr. Charles Hillman

At a time when schools are facing unprece­dented budget cuts and trimming the program­matic fat, physical edu­cation often is one of the first things to be reduced or cut. But what if physical education classes weren’t “just” about giving children an opportunity to move for a few minutes and relieve restlessness? What if physical health was directly tied to brain health and better grades and somebody had the data to prove it?

As it turns out, someone from The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education does.

“There’s substantial scientific proof that physical activity improves children’s physical health and offers health benefits that continue through adulthood,” said Darla Castelli, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education and a top national expert on physical education. “But that fact hasn’t been quite compelling enough for most states to require that schools carve out adequate physical education and activity time each day.

“Now, however, we’re amassing strong data that show a change in level of physical health and fitness leads to a change in cognitivehealth. Ideally, thesefindings will help bump physical education from the category of ‘optional’ to ‘absolutely essential.’”

In one study Castelli and her research colleagues were able to confirm that even a single bout of intense physical activity offers cognitive benefits to children.

Collaborating with Dr. Charles Hillman from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Castelli investigated the effects on academic achievement of 20 minutes of walking versus 20 minutes of sitting. After walking and returning to within 10 percent of their resting heart rate, children in the study worked on several complex cognitive tasks. 

“Brain scans revealed that cognitive functioning improved in children who were active and who were allowed to return to resting intensities before they undertook the cognitive tasks,” said Castelli. “The more vigorous the physical activity and the more time spent above the target heart zone, the greater the gains in cognitive performance and the more accurately and quickly they completed cognitive exercises. This research suggests that it is very important to provide children with opportunities to be physically active during the school day.”

In a second study that compared dancing with a human dance instructor to dancing with the Xbox 360 Dance Central program, Castelli and Hillman’s research showed that students who danced with the actual instructor expended more energy than those who used the game console.

“This detail may be of interest to parents who wonder if their children reap benefits from dancing and or active gaming on the Wii or Xbox,” said Castelli. “The more vigorous the physical activity, the greater the cognitive benefits, and participation in a physical activity like dance does expend more energy is expended during active gaming. That being said, though, active gaming participation is certainly better than sitting or lying down.” 

Perhaps more important, in two recently completed studies Castelli also was able to establish a strong link between preadolescent children’s cognitive performance and health risk factors like high body mass index (BMI), high blood pressure, low aerobic capacity, elevated C-reactive protein (which signals inflammation), and arterial stiffness.

As she suspected, there was a positive correlation between health risk factors and cognitive inhibition, and the more risk factors a child had the worse the cognitive performance.

“We’ve provided the science that substantiates a link between physical activity, fitness and brain function,” said Castelli. “Specifically, our research shows that the more fit children are, the better they tend to do in math and reading.

The next step – one that we’re working on now – is to find the underlying biological mechanisms that could explain why a child with a large waistline might have poorer academic responses than a child with a healthy BMI. The aim is to root out the metabolic processes that serve to promote attention and memory. If we can answer this question, we’ll be the among the first ever to do so.”

In addition to being a top scholar, Castelli also is a prominent national leader in the push for physical fitness policy reform. For the past two decades she has traveled the nation introducing communities to physical activity intervention programs like FIT Kids, Fitness4Everyone, and the Comprehensive School Physical Activity, a model that was endorsed by first lady Michelle Obama in her “Let Move! Active Schools” initiative.

This spring she and Dr. Stephen Pont, medical director for the Texas Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity at Dell Children’s Medical Center, will be ramping up the fight against childhood obesity in Central Texas and launching the Kinetic Kidz program in Austin. The program focuses on children who are inactive and have at least one other health risk factor, the aim being to offer interventions that will prevent the children from becoming obese.

“I think that one of the most promising ways to improve children’s health and fitness is to maximize the potential of schools,” said Castelli. “About 98 percent of children are in school for at least six hours a day and that means there’s tremendous opportunity for seeing that they get the minimum recommended amount of daily physical activity and eat healthily.”

Fortunately, Castelli has been in a prime position to positively affect physical education reform. Among other things, she has presented her work at U.S. Congress briefings and is a member of two Institute of Medicine committees that address children’s physical education and fitness.

To stem the tide of childhood obesity and help children realize their academic potential, Castelli recommends:

  • ensuring that children engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 60 minutes each day
  • providing time for structured physical activity as well as informal physical activity (play)
  • measuring the physical activity intensity
  • embedding physical activity in the overall school curriculum
  • during the school day, allowing physical activity breaks at least every 60 minutes, and even more for young children
  • providing highly trained physical education teachers who also serve as Physical Activity Leaders (PALs)
  • offering ongoing professional development training for  educators and adminstrators
  • ensuring that there are physical activity opportunities before and after school

“In the FIT Kids program, for example, we’ve found that children who don’t participate and who remain inactive are less likely to be at grade level in reading and math,” said Castelli. “And you don’t simply have the academic performance aspect to consider. Overweight and obese children also are more likely to experience social stigma and bullying and miss more school days, in addition to suffering physical health problems and possibly receiving lower grades.”

Castelli is more aware than most of the challenges facing physical education advocates, but she is hopeful that her research on the link between physical fitness and cognitive health will spur communities and schools to press for reforms.

“It’s been proven that sitting and doing nothing is terrible for our bodies,” said Castelli. “That includes the brain. With the data we now have, I’m hopeful that parents and communities will speak up and demand that adequate amounts of high-quality physical education be part of every single school day. The fact is that the quality of a child’s academic work in all of the other classes depends on it.”

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Last updated on May 1, 2013