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Although the positive effects of different kinds of physical activity (PA) on cognitive functioning have already been demonstrated in a variety of studies, the role of cognitive engagement in promoting children’s executive functions is still unclear. The aim of the current study was therefore to investigate the effects of two qualitatively different chronic PA interventions on executive functions in primary school children. Children (N = 181) aged between 10 and 12 years were assigned to either a 6-week physical education program with a high level of physical exertion and high cognitive engagement (team games), a physical education program with high physical exertion but low cognitive engagement (aerobic exercise), or to a physical education program with both low physical exertion and low cognitive engagement (control condition). Executive functions (updating, inhibition, shifting) and aerobic fitness (multistage 20-m shuttle run test) were measured before and after the respective condition. Results revealed that both interventions (team games and aerobic exercise) have a positive impact on children’s aerobic fitness (4–5% increase in estimated VO2max). Importantly, an improvement in shifting performance was found only in the team games and not in the aerobic exercise or control condition. Thus, the inclusion of cognitive engagement in PA seems to be the most promising type of chronic intervention to enhance executive functions in children, providing further evidence for the importance of the qualitative aspects of PA.
Mirko Schmidt is with the Institute of Sport Science, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland. Katja Jäger is with the Department of Psychology, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland. Fabienne Egger is with the Institute of Sport Science, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland. Claudia M. Roebers is with the Department of Psychology and Center of Cognition, Learning and Memory, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland. Achim Conzelmann is with the Institute of Sport Science, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland.