Why exercise is so good for children’s cognitive development

There is a positive correlation between sports and cognitive functions
Recent studies show that children 12 years and younger get physical and cognitive benefits later in life from engaging in exercise
This isn’t parenting advice. 
I’m years away from being anywhere near qualified to be dishing any of that out—and even when I’ve hit the “requisite” years of experience, I’d still be hesitant to give such advice. But here goes: You should get your kids exercising, especially those younger than 12, even indoors.
Where is this coming from? I spent at least a semester in university writing a paper encouraging the reformation of the physical education system at the college level—arguing for its importance as a tool for holistic individual developmen

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children and adolescents from ages six through 17 do at least 60 minutes of “moderate-to-vigorous” physical activity daily

Aside from recently rewriting the paper, I even more recently ran into a 2021 study on physical activity in childhood and adulthood cognitive performance.

It was a sign.

What you already knew

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children and adolescents from ages six through 17 do at least 60 minutes of “moderate-to-vigorous” physical activity daily. 

Perhaps not as relevant in these times but team sport hosts a fountain of benefits for children as well. I agree with blogger Josh Bobberman when he writes on the website Team Kids, “Playing team sports encourages cooperation and sharing, resilience, goal setting and building relationships.”

Involving children in team sports (when it is viable to do so) gives them the chance to embark on the important journey of learning to cooperate, share, and sometimes lose

Indeed, my childhood year of rugby was reigned by thoughts of tackling other children with timely grabs at their ankles (“toe-tapping” we called it) but passing the ball to teammates, strategizing, and camaraderie were given airtime too.

So while we should encourage children to get up and move to receive the CDC-outlined benefits—improved cardiorespiratory fitness, strengthened bones and muscles, weight control, reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression, reduced risk of developing a slew of health conditions—involving children in team sports (when it is viable to do so) gives children the chance to embark on the important journey of learning to cooperate, share, and, importantly, sometimes lose.

The cognitive stuff that was certainly new to me

We all know that “sports is good for children” but one 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public health puts a neat scientific cap on it.

The authors performed a systematic review of research demonstrating “the influence of physical activity on health, especially as a positive correlation between sports and cognitive functions.” They found that executive function development—motivation, the ability to set goals, and practice self-control—are fostered by engaging in sport. 

An even more recent study out of Kobe University published in NeuroImage last May looked at the link between childhood exercise and cognitive function in later life. Researchers found that physically active children (up to 12 years of age) have higher cognitive functions later in life. The same correlation could not be found between cognitive function and post-childhood physical activity.

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