Herald Journal Columns
Jan. 10, 2005, Herald Journal

Exercise can boost brain power


There has been much research done on the brain and boosting an infant’s, child’s, and even an adult’s brain power.

Information relayed through the media states that reading to your infant and playing music, such as Mozart, will increase your infant’s brain power.

Even drinking a glass of water in the morning before that cup of coffee or juice is beneficial to an adult to get their brain power boosted at the start of a day.

As a young child’s brain develops, trillions of connections are formed between brain cells, and developed through stimuli, such as light, color, smell, and sound.

These connections are vital to learning. The more connections a child has, the faster he or she can process information.

According to recent findings from the UCLA Medical School and the National Institute of Health, a child’s brain doesn’t fully mature until the late teenage years or beyond. Many experts believe that by stimulating an infant’s senses through an enriched environment, you can, quite possibly, increase his or her I.Q.

Stephen Camarata, deputy director of the Kennedy Center for Research on Developmental Disabilities at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, on the website, tennessean.com, defines boosting brain power as “essentially, maximizing a child’s potential for learning and understanding.”

Whether a child’s innate intelligence can be increased, or “just” his or her intellectual performance or efficiency, Dr. Phil states in his book, “Family First,” that increased intellectual and cognitive functioning is important for many reasons, including the positive impact it has on mental and emotional stability and social confidence.

If a child accomplishes something worthwhile and experiences success, a child builds a foundation of self-mastery, which can have a wonderful domino effect.

“Positive experiences lift children up to help them see all kinds of possibilities for themselves,” Dr. Phil said.

We all want our children to be able to do this.

The brain has the ability to acquire 11 new facts every second, but if it’s deprived of the nutrients it needs, it will not function at its optimum level, the website www.napuda.com says. One of the “nutrients” that can help boost brain power is exercise.

My next few articles will focus on tips that might make learning a little easier for a child. The tips and information are compiled from a variety of sources, including workshops about the brain that I have attended, the websites tennessean.com and www.napuda.com, and Dr. Phil’s book, “Family First.”

This week, the focus will be on the importance of exercise for children.

Benefits of exercise

Research suggests that a sedentary lifestyle can make children inattentive. Sedentary activities also don’t give children the time or opportunity to engage in the physical activity they need to improve balance and coordination, increase muscle strength, improve self-esteem, blow off steam, receive a restful night’s sleep, and establish healthy habits.

The American Heart Association recommends that children participate in at least 30 minutes of enjoyable, moderate-intensity activities daily, in addition to 30 minutes of vigorous activities at least three to four times weekly, to maintain healthy heart and lung fitness.

Dr. Phil notes that it is also important to encourage young children to relax after exercising, since relaxation is vital to restoring physical and mental energy.

“We’ve had a number of studies that show when a child exercises for even brief periods of time, that for 15 minutes to a half-hour after they exercise, they actually have a higher attention level,” Camarta said.

Exercise triggers the release of brain chemicals called endorphins, which have a calming effect, and increase activity in the brain that’s associated with learning and memory.

Regular exercise also enables oxygen to be carried to the brain more efficiently, and the brain needs oxygen to function to the best of its ability.

Physical activity boosts blood flow to all parts of the body, including the brain. When the brain is supplied with freshly oxygenated blood, concentration, thinking speed, and complex reasoning are all enhanced.

“Children who are physically active as a matter of habit, perform better in school, which is a finding confirmed by more than 50 years of research,” Dr. Phil said.

In his book, “Family First,” Dr. Phil lists the following benefits of physical activity: promotes clear thinking, stimulates the brain and learning, increases energy and mental concentration, produces positive changes in the body that enhance self-esteem, helps develop motor skills and coordination, helps manage stress and anxiety, and reduces depression by increasing levels of important brain chemicals that are often depleted in depression.

Dr. Phil noted that one of the most effective ways to motivate children to become more physically active is to be active yourself. Children rely on the role models in their lives. That gives us, as adults, another very important reason to exercise.

Suggested activities

There are many activities that children can do for exercise that are fun, too; for example, team sports, martial arts, biking, rollerblading, skating, swimming, hiking, working out with a friend, and dancing to music.

Dancing is an important exercise because it requires the memorization of specific movements – a mental activity that helps build brain connections, Dr. Phil stated.

Exercise should be appropriate to a child’s age and state of physical end emotional development. Dr. Phil recommends the following age-appropriate activities:

• For children six and under, tumbling, hopscotch, jumping rope, swimming, karate, playing tag, outdoor play, dance, and unstructured play are great activities.

• For ages seven and up, soccer, field hockey, basketball, swimming, in-line skating, biking, other organized sports, and dancing are very appropriate activities.

• In adolescence, sports, running, weight training, and exercise classes are some good activities.

It is important to establish a regular time for physical activity daily, even during the winter months. If the weather doesn’t permit outdoor play, here are some suggested indoor physical activities for children (and adults too):

• Set up an obstacle course with pillows, chairs, and couch cushions.

• Think up funny ways for children to walk. Ask them to take elephant, kangaroo, bunny, duck, marching, and baby steps. Use your imagination.

• Have sack races. Bring out a few pillowcases and have children stand inside a pillowcase and hop around.

• Inflate some balloons and have children hit around the balloons, or tie the balloons with long strings and hang the balloons so your children will have to stretch, jump, and tap at the balloon. Remember, if the balloon pops, immediately discard all of the pieces.

Happy exercising! Remember, just allowing and encouraging children to play outside can do the trick.