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Afterschool Exercise Program Boosts Kids’ Fitness and Cognition

Update Date: Sep 29, 2014 01:06 PM EDT

Exercise is good for physical and mental health regardless of age, which is why so many programs have been created to encourage people to be more active. In a new study, researchers examined the effects of afterschool exercise programs on children between the ages of seven and nine. The team discovered that these programs could help boost the kids' fitness and cognition.

In this nine-month long study, the researchers recruited 221 children who were randomly assigned to the afterschool exercise program or to a wait-list group that acted as the control. The afterschool exercise program, called FITKids, was based on another program known as CATCH. The kids in this group had to wear heart-rate monitors and pedometers. All of the children received cognitive testing and brain imaging before and after the study.

"Those in the exercise group received a structured intervention that was designed for the way kids like to move," said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Charles Hillman, who led the study reported in the press release. "They performed short bouts of exercise interspersed with rest over a two-hour period."

Overall, the children from the intervention group had averaged heart rates that indicated moderate-to-vigorous levels of intense exercise. They averaged around 4,500 steps during each session and were physically active for around 70 minutes per day. Over the span of the study, the children from the intervention group had increased fitness by six percent whereas children from the control group experienced an almost one percent increase.

On top of physical fitness, the researchers found that children from the intervention group also experienced increases in their "attentional inhibition," which measures the children's ability to focus on their task at hand without being distracted by other stimuli and "cognitive flexibility," which is a measurement of the children's ability to switch between intellectual tasks without jeopardizing speed and accuracy.

"Kids in the intervention group improved two-fold compared to the wait-list kids in terms of their accuracy on cognitive tasks," Hillman said. "And we found widespread changes in brain function, which relate to the allocation of attention during cognitive tasks and cognitive processing speed. These changes were significantly greater than those exhibited by the wait-list kids. Interestingly, the improvements observed in the FITKids intervention were correlated with their attendance rate, such that greater attendance was related to greater change in brain function and cognitive performance."

The study, "Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function," was published in the journal, Pediatrics.

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