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Preschoolers with better cardiorespiratory fitness perform better on cognitive tests, study finds

Experts say that there is a strong link between physical fitness and intellectual abilities

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Finding ways to keep young kids active can be difficult for many parents -- especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is exploring how physical fitness could be related to academic abilities.  

According to the researchers, kids’ physical fitness from preschool age can lead to better cognitive outcomes. Their work showed that preschoolers who have the strongest cardiorespiratory fitness are also the most likely to have the highest scores on cognitive and academic assessments. 

“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,” said researcher Shleby Keye. “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.” 

How fitness affects intelligence

The researchers put 60 preschoolers through a variety of tests that evaluated their physical and cognitive abilities. To test cardiorespiratory fitness, the kids were told to walk as far as they could in an allotted time. The cognitive tests were more extensive, with the kids completing several computer-based tests and undergoing cognitive and developmental assessments. 

After compiling the data from all of these trials, the association between physical fitness and intellectual abilities was clear. The kids who had the strongest cardiorespiratory fitness were also the strongest intellectually and cognitively. 

However, it’s also important to note that the researchers don’t believe that increasing children’s physical fitness is likely to yield better academic outcomes. Instead, the findings simply show that the two are closely linked. 

Because this study focuses on kids at such a young age and during such a crucial developmental stage, the researchers are curious about when this relationship between fitness and cognition is developed. Other studies have highlighted how a good exercise routine can be beneficial to consumers’ brain function, but these findings are most often focused on adults. 

“...It isn’t yet known at what point in the developmental trajectory of childhood this relationship emerges,” Keye said. 

Keeping kids physically active

While these findings are certainly promising, the researchers’ anticipate that the biggest roadblock for parents is keeping their kids active. Several studies have found that kids -- even from this young age -- have adopted very sedentary lifestyles. 

“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. 

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