The Relation of Childhood Physical Activity and Aerobic Fitness to Brain Function and Cognition: A Review

in Pediatric Exercise Science

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Naiman A. KhanUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Charles H. HillmanUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Physical inactivity has been shown to increase the risk for several chronic diseases across the lifespan. However, the impact of physical activity and aerobic fitness on childhood cognitive and brain health has only recently gained attention. The purposes of this article are to: 1) highlight the recent emphasis for increasing physical activity and aerobic fitness in children’s lives for cognitive and brain health; 2) present aspects of brain development and cognitive function that are susceptible to physical activity intervention; 3) review neuroimaging studies examining the cross-sectional and experimental relationships between aerobic fitness and executive control function; and 4) make recommendations for future research. Given that the human brain is not fully developed until the third decade of life, preadolescence is characterized by changes in brain structure and function underlying aspects of cognition including executive control and relational memory. Achieving adequate physical activity and maintaining aerobic fitness in childhood may be a critical guideline to follow for physical as well as cognitive and brain health.

The authors are with the Dept. of Kinesiology and Community Health, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL. Address author correspondence to Naiman A. Khan at nakhan2@illinois.edu.

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