Editors' ChoiceNeuroscience

Get Physical, Get Smart!

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Science Translational Medicine  20 Feb 2013:
Vol. 5, Issue 173, pp. 173ec32
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3005923

Worldwide, there is a dramatic rise in obesity among school-age children, with only one-third of youth being considered sufficiently physically active. The physical health risks of inactivity are well known, but the detrimental effects of physical inactivity on cognitive function and academic achievement are less well understood. Previous research has suggested that physical activity and diet have the potential to induce changes in learning and memory, and that childhood motor activity may facilitate key developmental functions such as language acquisition and gross motor skills to set the stage for later academic achievement. To understand how these factors are related, Kantomaa et al. set out to examine whether childhood motor activity predicts later academic achievement.

The authors leveraged data from a large prospective birth cohort of 8081 children from Northern Finland sampled between 1985 and 2002. This data set collected information about parent-reported motor function at 8 years of age and then self-reported physical activity, predicted cardiorespiratory fitness (cycle ergometer test), obesity (body weight and height), and academic achievement (grades) at 16 years of age. Structural equation models were used to test whether, and to what extent, physical activity, cardiorespiratory fitness, and obesity at age 16 mediated the association between childhood motor function and academic achievement in adolescence. Physical activity was associated with a higher grade-point average, and obesity was associated with a lower grade-point average in adolescence. In addition, compromised motor function in childhood had an indirect negative effect on academic achievement during adolescence, which was mediated by physical inactivity and obesity but not by cardiorespiratory fitness.

These results suggest that physical activity and obesity may mediate the relation between childhood motor function and academic achievement during adolescence so that reduced motor function in childhood may be driving the effects of obesity and physical inactivity on academic underachievement. This study does not provide a causal explanation for academic underachievement among teens, and results may have been influenced by unmeasured confounds or biases associated with parent and self-reporting. Nevertheless, this study provides important new evidence about the mind-body connection early in childhood development. With escalating rates of childhood obesity in the United States and abroad, this research gives us yet another reason to engage our children in physical activity.

M. T. Kantomaa et al., Physical activity and obesity mediate the association between childhood motor function and adolescents’ academic achievement. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110, 1917–1922 (2013). [Abstract]

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