Researchers have long looked for connections between fitness levels and cognition in adults but young children have essentially been left out of the equation until now. Scientists from the University of Illinois discovered preschoolers with higher fitness levels than their peers also scored better on cognitive tests and other measures of brain function.
The report published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine establishes a link between fitness and cognition earlier in life than researchers had previously anticipated. This underscores the growing problem of inactivity among all age groups. Researchers said even most preschoolers are not meeting the daily recommend guidelines for physical activity.
"This is worrisome, since brain development of core cognitive control processes begins in early childhood and continues well into early adulthood," said researcher Naiman Khan. “And yet, studies of this age group are limited.”
Previous research from other scientists established a link between higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness in older children and adults and the relative size and connectivity of brain structures which affect cognitive control.
"But it isn't yet known at what point in the developmental trajectory of childhood this relationship emerges," researcher Shelby Keye said. The purpose of this work was to see if that link could first be established.
Khan, Keye and others worked with a group of 59 preschool-aged children and subjected them to fitness and cognition tests. Researchers wanted to see how far children could walk in six minutes and used that as a barometer for their cardiorespiratory fitness level. They were then given an early cognitive and academic development test to measure intellectual abilities.
They also completed a computerized “flanker” test which tested their concentration. The children had to focus on an important part of an image while trying to ignore distracting information around it. Another computerized test was used to determine the child’s “mental flexibility” by asking them to change their response depending on whether flowers or hearts appeared on the screen.
A subset of 33 also completed an attention test which required the use of an EEG device that measured electrical activity during a cognitive control task. The findings of the research pointed to a strong relationship between physical fitness and cognitive abilities.
"Preschool children with higher estimated cardiorespiratory fitness had higher scores on academic ability tasks related to general intellectual abilities as well as their use of expressive language," Keye said. "They had better performance on computerized tasks requiring attention and multitasking skills, and they showed the potential for faster processing speeds and greater resource allocation in the brain when completing these computerized tasks."
While researchers were quick to point out there is growing evidence for a close connection between fitness levels and cognitive abilities, even in children as young as four, they refused to say their work proved that increasing a child’s fitness levels will enhance their cognitive abilities.