Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Overweight Children's Cognitive Functioning: A Randomized Controlled Trial

Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Overweight Children's Cognitive Functioning: A Randomized Controlled Trial

Article excerpt

The study tested the effect of aerobic exercise training on executive function in overweight children. Ninety-four sedentary, overweight but otherwise healthy children (mean age = 9. 2 years, body mass index 85th percentile) were randomized to a low-dose (20 min/day exercise), high-dose (40 min/day exercise), or control condition. Exercise sessions met 5 days/week for 15 weeks. The Cognitive Assessment System (CAS), a standardized test of cognitive processes, was administered individually before and following intervention. Analysis of covariance on posttest scores revealed effects on executive function. Group differences emerged for the GAS Planning scale (p = .03). Planning scores for the high-dose group were significantly greater than those of the control group. Exercise may prove to be a simple, yet important, method of enhancing aspects of children's mental functioning that are central to cognitive and social development.

Key words: developmental psychology, executive functioning, obesity, physical activity


Pediatric obesity is an epidemic with major implications (Daniels et al., 2005; Strauss & Pollack, 2001). Besides its well known health consequences, overweight in children is associated with poor IQ test performance (Campos, Sigulem, Moraes, Escrivao, & Fisberg, 1996; Li, 1995) and poor academic achievement (Taras & Potts-Datema, 2005). For this reason and because overweight is a marker of a long history of inactivity, overweight, sedentary children may be more likely to benefit from an exercise intervention than their active, normal-weight peers.

A recent meta-analytic review of published and unpublished studies conducted with children and adolescents suggests that exercise training is significantly associated with improved cognition in children (effect size d = .32) (Sibley & Etnier, 2003). The authors acknowledge, however, that there is limited evidence that systematic exercise training causes improvement in children's cognitive function. Few experiments have been conducted that both involve children in substantial levels of aerobic training and employ sensitive, well-validated measures of cognitive function. Some studies failed to detect effects on cognition (see Tuckman, 1999 for a review). Sibley and Etnier (2003) suggested that controlled intervention studies with adequate statistical power were needed to establish causation. The present study was designed to address these concerns.

The executive function hypothesis (Churchill et al., 2002; Hall, Smith & Keele, 2001; Kramer et al., 1999), which has been developed in gerontology, predicts that the largest improvements in cognition due to exercise will be on executive function (i.e., the ability to plan, initiate, and carry out activity sequences that make up goal-directed behavior, self monitoring, and self-control). Executive function develops from early childhood through adolescence, with its most dynamic phase of development during the elementary school years (Welsh, Friedman, & Spieker, 2006). Since most exercise studies with children have not used measures that are sensitive to executive function (Lezak, Howieson, & Loring, 2004, pp. 36, 611-612), this hypothesis may explain the mixed findings in children.

Children's cognitive functioning may be particularly sensitive to the influence of physical activity, given the evidence for a relation between children's early experiences, brain development, and cognitive function (Carlson, 2005; Nelson, 1999). The pattern of children's neural specialization (e.g. pruning of synapses) appears to be determined, in part, by environmental stimulation (Kolb & Whishaw, 1998). Recently, Hillman, Castelli, and Buck (2005) measured EEG brain activity in high-and low-fit children while they performed a choice-reaction test. High-fit children performed the behavioral task more rapidly and evidenced larger P3 amplitudes, consistent with better executive function, than low-fit children. …

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