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How Physical Activity Impacts Cognitive Development

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    Andrew Hilt Research Final Exercise: The New Food for Thought Picture yourself in your 2nd grade gym class. Did you ever find yourself wondering why exactly you had to go to gym class at all? What was climbing up this seemingly endless rope to the ceiling going to do for you? What’s the point of playing this dumb game of freeze-tag? How do these activities have anything to do with school and learning? As it turns out, gym class may have served as more than just a pointless time-filling class after all. So how does all the rope climbing and freeze tag-playing relate to school and the progression of the mind for elementary aged children?

    Evidence from a number of sources shows a direct correlation between physical activity and the development of cognitive ability. Before we examine this relationship, it is important to first understand why the question is controversial. Gym class and physical activity during the school day was not always mandatory for students in grade school. (7) Some teachers would argue that gym class should not be associated with school and that it is a waste of time that should be spent learning. A common argument against gym class is that students will on average, exercise the same amount everyday if they have gym class or not.

    (8) A study done in the U. K by a team of researchers from Peninsula Medical School suggests that physical activity in school is not really necessary for children to stay fit at all. The research group selected included 206 students ranging from age seven to age eleven. The students were selected from three separate schools around the same area in Plymouth, England. One of the schools mandated its students to an average of 9. 2 hours of gym class per week. The other two schools only allowed an average of 2. 4 and 1. 7 hours of gym class per week for its students.

    The research team distributed devices called ActiGraphs to all of the students. ActiGraphs work to measure not only the amount of physical activity by the wearer, but also the intensity of the activity. The students were asked to wear these devices during school, and while they were at home until they went to bed. The study found that the children from all three schools moved around about the same amount, at a similar intensity. No matter how much the children were exercising during school, in the end of the day they were still getting the same amount of physical activity on average.

    (1) This discovery is surprising because of the vast gap in hours spent in gym class per week between the schools. Biostatistician Alissa Fremeaux analyzed the study and suggested a reason for these results. Referring to the children in the study, Fremeaux claims “Once they get home, if they are very active at school, they are probably staying still a bit more because they’ve already expended so much energy…The others are more likely to grab a bike and run around after school, or maybe join a sports club. ” (1) The analysis of this experiment suggests that gym class is not necessary to ensure kids are exercising.

    It does not however, deny that physical activity stimulates the progression of mental ability in elementary students. Despite the results of this study, the growing problem of childhood obesity has forced schools everywhere to make physical activity apart of the school day. (8) This is a crucial decision that especially shows an affect in elementary-aged children. It just so happens that this particular time in a child’s life is very important in determining just how that child will develop in a cognitive sense.

    Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory explains why this is the case. Piaget’s theory divides intellectual development into stages moving from infancy to adulthood. One of these stages is known as the concrete operational stage of development, which typically occurs in children from the age of seven until the age of twelve. During this span of time, children are usually progressing from second to seventh grade. According to Piaget the concrete operational stage involves the thinking of children becoming less egocentric, and they begin to analyze external events in more depth.

    This is also the stage of cognitive development where children begin to develop operational thinking. Operational thinking is the mental ability to make connections and relationships to understand why things work the way they do. The concrete operational stage of development is crucial in the development of these key mental capabilities within elementary-aged children to draw relationships and make conclusions about the world around them. (7) With these enhanced abilities to make more complicated and in-depth observations, at their disposal, children are much more likely to excel in school.

    Now that we understand why cognitive development is especially important for children in elementary school, we can start to address the correlation between physical activity and mental progression. In what ways does physical activity in children actually affect their mental health? Dr. Mary McCabe, an expert in physical education and the health of young children, examined results from 80 different brain research studies. All 80 of these studies suggested a link between regular physical activity and academic readiness. Dr.

    McCabe claims, “The research suggests children can raise their achievement level, increase their motivation, heighten their understanding, accelerate their learning timeline, and expand their creativity…” (2) With more motivation and an accelerated learning ability that this study suggests, the concrete operational stage of a child’s life becomes even more affective. By exercising, children of elementary school ages are not only rapidly developing increased capability of mental cognition, but they are also speeding up the process in which this process occurs.

    The evidence that Dr. McCabe uncovered clearly shows a direct positive relationship between physical activity in children, and their mental health. “The proof keeps on coming that physical activity enhances brain function,” says Neurophysiological behaviorist Dr. Aric Sigman. Sigman presents a brain research study that has found a connection between physical activity and brain anatomy in nine to ten-year-old children. The study found that children who were the most active at this age, tended to have a 12% larger hippocampus relative to their total brain size.

    The hippocampus is an area of the brain that allows learning and the storage of memories. A larger hippocampus can also be associated with better reasoning on cognitive tasks. This enlarged portion of the brain due to physical activity is especially ideal for children of this age. With a larger hippocampus, children are able to absorb and recall their memories much more efficiently. (9) This will enable elementary children to more actively remember and analyze the new connections they are starting to make upon entering the concrete operational phase of cognitive development. (7) Dr.

    Aric Sigman also claims that physical activity positively benefits a child’s cognitive ability by increasing the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. This triggers the release of an increased level of norepinephrine and endorphins to act as a stress reliever and to improve mood. The increased blood flow to the brain also results in a quicker development of new nerve cells that help to reinforce connections between synapses in the brain. These synapses are mandatory for humans to learn and progress mentally. The increased rate of blood flow through the brain is extremely beneficial to these children.

    The growing number of synapses will result in more neural connections in the brain. More neural connections result in a greater and quicker level of mental cognition. While this is happening during the concrete operational phase of cognitive development, children should find that they are able to process and analyze information at an accelerated rate if they are steadily exercising. (9) Despite all of the studies that back up the relationship between the mental developments of elementary children and how much they stay physically active, oppositions, and refusals of the claim all together still exist.

    One study conducted at the College of Columbia University claims that physical activity can actually harm your mental health. A team of researchers collected self-reported data that included information on the physical and mental health. The data was collected from a random selection of 7,674 adults from the United States who responded to the 2007 U. S Health Information National Trends Survey. The study found that participants who exercised more than seven and a half hour per week were surprisingly more likely to show symptoms of anxiety and depression.

    Professor of biobehavioral sciences Carol Ewing Garber explains, “We found that if you do a little less than what we generally recommend for health benefits then you had more symptoms of depression, anxiety or poor mental health… But we were really surprised that if you did more you also had worsened symptoms. ” (11) The results of this study disprove the correlation between physical activity and mental health, but variables other than physical activity could be at fault for this anomaly.

    The numbers never lie, but in the case of the previous study, I believe they may be slightly deceiving. First of all, the study collected results from a research group containing only adults. One in every ten adults in the United States show signs of depression compared to only one out of every thirty-three showing signs in U. S children. (10) Depression is known to sometimes lead to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. When discussing access exercise, it makes sense that adults with eating disorders might be exercising too much.

    I believe the higher chance of poor mental health due to too much exercise in this study is caused by the direct connection between eating disorders and symptoms of depression and anxiety among adults. If children were put through the exact same study, I’m quite sure that the results would not reveal the same conclusion. While the previous study suggests a negative effect of physical activity on the human brain, there is undeniable evidence suggesting a strong relationship between physical activity and mental development in children.

    The American Heart Association reported that physically active children overtime, have the highest average scores on all academic sub-tests. Comparatively, the least fit children had the lowest average of scores for the same tests. (3) This serves as a strong suggestion that more physical activity correlates positively with the mental capabilities in children. If this correlation does exist, having gym class in school is anything but useless. A research study performed by Taipei Physical Education College in Taiwan can offer more information that was discovered to support this correlation.

    Previously acquired evidence shows EEG readings, which are recordings of electrical activity near the scalp, increase in frequency when basic motor skills are performed. These findings are believed to suggest that physical activity directly relates to the development of brain function. The objective of the study was to note how physical activity affected EEG power in young children. A total of 83 students were selected from two different kindergartens that ranged from ages five to five and a half.

    37 children from one kindergarten served as the experimental group while the 46 students from the other school served as the control. Both groups were given a physical fitness test to start the study, and the experimental group was then assigned to a 6-month physical education class. EEG readings were taken at the beginning, and the end of six-month trial for both groups. The results showed that the experimental group producing a higher EEG power than the control group. These results suggest a higher rate of brain maturation among the physically active students when compared to the students without physical activity.

    (5) The effects of the enlargement of the hippocampus mixed with the increased blood flow to the brain and increasing levels of cognitive ability are made clear by this study. Children who are physically active display a more active and healthy cognitive function. Now think back to your second grade gym class again. Knowing how positively physical activity affects your mental health at this age, would you be so quick to question the importance of gym class now? Most children in elementary schools are in a crucial stage of cognitive development, which is only accelerated by staying physically active.

    Even if students tend to exercise about the same amount every day, with or without gym class, there is no reason to take gym class away from children. While there are a couple studies that suggest a negative relationship between exercise and mental cognition, an excessively large number of studies show that it does much more good than harm. The evidence displaying a positive correlation far outweighs evidence suggesting the opposite. Based on the research provided, it can be concluded that physical activity has a direct positive affect on the maturation of the mind in elementary children.

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