Rethinking brain and brawn

9th March 2012 at 00:00
The proof keeps on coming that physical activity enhances brain function, reports Aric Sigman

As budgets tighten, children's need for physical activity increasingly plays second fiddle to Ofsted reports and league table results. And while it is agreed that more PE is necessary to fight the so-called "obesity epidemic", schools are understandably concerned that allocating more time to it will displace vital classroom learning time. However, new research indicates that physical activity may be the key to reducing pupils' waist size while increasing their brain size along with their grades.

A study published in Brain Research has found an association between physical fitness and the brain anatomy in 9- and 10-year-old children. Those who were more physically fit tended to have a bigger hippocampus - about 12 per cent larger relative to total brain size - and perform better on a test of memory than their less-fit peers. The hippocampus is important in learning and memory, and a bigger hippocampus is associated with better performance on spatial reasoning and cognitive tasks.

The American Heart Association reported that children who are aerobically fit "over time score the highest mean on all the academic sub-tests". Conversely, those who were not fit "obtained the lowest academic mean". The researchers see significant academic implications for PE in the school system, saying, "If we can intervene on those children who are not necessarily fit and get them to physically fit levels, we may also see their academic performance increase."

And the brain versus brawn issue takes another twist in a study of 1.2 million Swedish male teenagers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that teenagers who are fit have a higher IQ and are more likely to go on to university. But it is only cardiovascular fitness, not muscle strength, that plays a role in the IQ test results; the researchers think that cardiovascular fitness ensures that the brain gets plenty of oxygen.

The study also found that teenagers who improve their physical fitness between the ages of 15 and 18 increase their cognitive performance when measured at age 18: "This being the case, physical education is a subject that has an important place in schools, and is an absolute must if we want to do well in maths and other theoretical subjects."

A new systematic review by Amika Singh and colleagues entitled "Physical Activity and Performance at School" in the Archives of Pediatrics amp; Adolescent Medicine takes the concept of physical activity and intellect further, with the authors commenting, "We found strong evidence of a significant positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance."

Physical activity is thought to help a child's cognitive processing by increasing blood and oxygen flow to the brain. This increases levels of norepinephrine and endorphins to decrease stress and improve mood, and increases growth factors that help create new nerve cells and support the connections between brain cell synapses that are at the basis of learning.

Studies of brain function at the Medical College of Georgia on 7- to 11-year-olds have just found a direct, positive relationship between their level of physical activity and their level of frontal-lobe brain activity (blood flow) - an important area for intellectual executive function. Furthermore, these brain changes correspond directly with positive changes in pupils' cognitive test scores assessing their decision-making processes and maths achievement.

Research into how PE changes our neuro- biology is now very specific. Scientists have long known that regular physical activity increases the number of sub-units in muscle cells called mitochondria, responsible for generating energy, which in turn is thought to underlie many of the positive physical effects of PE. In a new study in mice, researchers at the University of South Carolina have discovered that regular physical activity also increases mitochondrial numbers in brain cells, a potential basis for beneficial intellectual effects associated with it.

The message to British education should be very clear: children must spend at least an hour a day doing some form of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Vigorous is much better than moderate. We needn't be concerned that this will reduce grades by displacing learning time. All schools, in conjunction with parents, can devise ways of increasing physical activity in both formal and informal ways in and out of school time.

Dr Aric Sigman is a PSHE lecturer, fellow of the Society of Biology and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society


One of my Year 1 children has an IQ of 170. At the start of the autumn term she was a little "wild", hiding under tables, spitting, showing her pants, running around and so on. But, with a home school log, weekly parental meetings and offering rewards if she listened, worked with her peers and completed her work, things calmed down.

However, since Christmas she has been a nightmare. The home school log has little or no effect, she isn't motivated by rewards and knows how to press my buttons. She smirks when she makes the wrong choices, and thrives on me getting cross. Her mother is not supportive as her daughter has her wrapped around her finger.

What you said


In this instance, her high IQ is an advantage to you. She will more quickly understand how to play the game. I explain the behaviour I expect, what behaviour irritates me, and that if they irritate me, I will take time out of my busy life to phone home, track them down and keep them behind - and generally make their lives more difficult than they otherwise would be. I explain that I do this because I want them to succeed, and what behaviour I reward.

The expert view

This child is being spoiled. It's not fashionable to say so, but it needs to be faced up to and tackled, because the way this child is going she is learning lessons you really don't want her to. She is learning that if she behaves awfully, nothing very substantial will happen, except diminishing levels of reward. She is learning that adults permit themselves to be treated with scorn. And she is learning that the feelings of others are unimportant to the exercise of her will and her whims.

Step in now. You might not enjoy doing it, but she needs to understand that there are boundaries to her behaviour, and that those boundaries are patrolled by responsible adults who will insist upon consequences if she chooses not to abide by them. Children, like people, are simple and complex. Simple because there is a universal leveller - we avoid things we dislike. So attach sanctions to her misbehaviours that are actually meaningful: detentions, missed breaks, deferred lunches, stern tellings-off.

We do this because the children need to learn how to interact socially with children and adults; they need to learn self-restraint and that everyone is important. There are plenty of smart kids in borstals, or stacking shelves, because they couldn't restrain their selfishness, or because they couldn't get on with others. Teach her the most valuable lessons of all.

Her intelligence, while a factor, is largely unimportant to this process. Don't be confused by it, as if she has some elite, exceptional need that excuses her from being a prat. Her intelligence might necessitate more challenging, differentiated work, but don't differentiate on your behaviour management. Teach her rules, manners and character, and her education will take off. Don't teach her these things, and she will drown. If the home environment is weak, it's even more vital you provide a nurturing environment for this girl that actually nurtures rather than strangles in the name of good intentions. Good luck.

Tom Bennett is author of The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher.

Post your questions at


Aberg M.A.I. et al. "Cardiovascular fitness is associated with cognition in young adulthood" (2009). PNAS 106 (49): 20906-20911

Chaddock L. et al. "A neuroimaging investigation of the association between aerobic fitness, hippocampal volume and memory performance in preadolescent children" (2010). Brain Research 1358: 172-183

Chaddock L. et al. "Childhood aerobic fitness predicts cognitive performance one year later" (2012). J Sports Sci.

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