Fit to Study: The effects of exercise on the brain
By: Kathryn Atherton
Academic performance depends on the condition of the brain
All our experiences change and shape our brains. Teaching is no exception. Teachers provide experiences that cause changes in the brain; indeed, this is the mechanism by which school-based education works. Therefore, it makes sense that academic performance would depend on the condition of the brain.
Academic performance is complex – many different cognitive functions play a part in how well we perform, and these are supported by different brain networks.
Learning and memory are critical to academic success. The hippocampus, a structure located within the medial temporal lobes of the brain, plays a major role in the formation of long-term memories. The more effectively this structure works, the easier it may be for a person to learn and remember new things.
In addition to long-term memory, another mental ability that plays an important role in academic success is cognitive control. Cognitive control (also known as executive function) refers to our ability to control our thoughts and actions, which allows us to make decisions and to plan in accordance with our goals. These processes are thought to be largely supported by the prefrontal cortex, which lies in the frontal lobes of the brain. When this brain area functions well, we are proficient at holding and manipulating information in working memory, concentrating on the task at hand, formulating plans, making decisions and controlling our behaviour.
Therefore, if we want to maximise the positive impact of education on academic performance we should strive to optimise the functioning of the brain, in particular the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.
Physical exercise improves the condition of the brain in adults
Experiments in adults and animals have demonstrated that some forms of physical exercise can have an effect on brain activity during cognitive tasks and that, over time, exercise interventions can also increase the size of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, they can improve learning, memory and executive functions both immediately and in the long-term. Some researchers have demonstrated a correlation between exercise-induced brain changes and improvements in cognitive performance.
The precise mechanism by which exercise changes the brain is still not fully understood. However, it is known that exercise can stimulate the production of new blood vessels and connections between brain cells, and even the birth of entirely new cells in the hippocampus.
What about children?
Some studies have demonstrated associations between physical activity and academic performance in children, although research in this area is relatively scarce.
During childhood and adolescence the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, is still developing. At this stage the brain is more plastic, which means that it changes more easily. It is therefore possible that physical exercise interventions could have a greater benefit during this phase of life. It may even be the case that certain kinds of physical activity are critical ingredients for optimal brain development.
Studies have shown that around 75% of children in England fail to achieve the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Physical Education (PE) lessons in schools are an opportunity to help children attain the kinds of physical exercise that are advantageous for brain function. However, a remarkably small proportion of PE lesson time is currently spent engaged in physical activities.
The Fit to Study project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation as part of the Education and Neuroscience initiative, aims to develop a physical activity intervention for Year 8 (12 -13 year old) pupils that will maximise the benefit of PE lessons for brain function. Our goal is to examine the impact of this intervention on cognitive performance and academic achievement. We will work with heads of PE and sports coaches to develop a training package for PE teachers that includes a neuroscience-based programme of study. The intervention will be delivered over an academic year in a randomised controlled trial that involves approximately 30 intervention schools and 30 control schools.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans in a sub-sample of the participants will, we hope, allow us to investigate the neural mechanisms by which our intervention may improve cognitive and academic performance in children over the long-term. In particular:
- We are interested to see if our intervention increases the size of the hippocampus and/or the prefrontal cortex. Such a change may relate to performance improvements on cognitive tasks and/or academic tests.
- We anticipate that cognitive task-associated brain activity might be influenced by the intervention.
- We will also be looking to see if the intervention affects the structural or functional connectivity between certain brain regions, especially the pathways that are critically involved in memory processes.
Our project should tell us whether changing the nature of PE lessons can improve cognitive and academic performance. The intervention is designed to be both scalable and affordable, so that it can be used more widely if found to be beneficial. We hope to contribute to the currently relatively small pool of rigorous, large-scale neuroscience-based studies that schools and education policy makers can use to make well informed decisions.
For more information on the Fit to Study project please contact: