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Children performed better on tests after they exercised, a new study has found. The children also exhibited better cognitive control – the ability to focus on a task and act based on choice rather than impulse.

Researchers asked 20 preadolescent boys and girls to walk on a treadmill for 20 minutes at a brisk pace sufficient to raise their heart rate to 60 percent of their estimated maximum. After their heart rate returned to nearly pre-exercise levels, the children completed cognitive control assessments and standardized tests in reading, spelling, and math. They completed similar assessments and tests on a different day but without having exercised beforehand. The researchers measured aspects of the children’s brain activity while taking the tests.

They found that the children performed better on tests of reading comprehension and demonstrated better cognitive control after having exercised. The children’s brains reflected greater neural activity related to attention and working memory processes.

Research has identified robust links between regular exercise and brain function. Some of the mechanisms that drive the beneficial effects of exercise on the brain include increases in brain volume and connectivity, improved blood flow, enhanced synaptic plasticity, and increased neurogenesis – the formation of new neurons. In addition, exercise induces the production of lactate, which stimulates the production of neurotransmitters in the brain that promote focus and attention. Learn more about the brain benefits of lactate in this episode featuring Dr. George Brooks.

The findings from this small study suggest that exercise helps kids perform better in school and underscores the importance of incorporating physical activity into education plans.

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