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Naiman A. Khan and Charles H. Hillman

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.

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Charles H. Hillman and John R. Biggan

This manuscript, which arose from the inaugural Tom Rowland Lecture Series at the 2016 North American Society for Pediatric Exercise Medicine conference, provides a brief descriptive review of what is known (i.e., the state of the science) regarding the relation of childhood physical activity (PA) and cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) to brain health, cognition, and academic outcomes. Gaps in the knowledgebase are identified, including characteristics of the PA stimulus that promotes changes in brain and cognition, whether critical periods in development exist in which PA/CRF may have a disproportionately large influence, the understanding of individual difference factors, and the influence upon learning. Lastly, several possible directions for future research are proposed. Although the field of childhood PA, CRF, brain, and cognition is rapidly expanding, there is considerable room for future growth. This manuscript may be helpful in shaping that future growth, with the goal of improving lifelong health and effective functioning.

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Charles H. Hillman, Kirk I. Erickson and Bradley D. Hatfield

The past two decades have uncovered the beneficial relation of physical activity and other health behaviors on brain and cognition, with the majority of data emerging from older adult populations. More recently, a similar research thread has emerged in school-aged children, which offers insight into the relation of physical activity to scholastic performance, providing a real-world application of the benefits observed in the laboratory. Technological advances have similarly furthered our understanding of physical activity effects on cognitive and brain health. Given this emerging body of work, this manuscript reviews the basic findings within the field, but more importantly suggests triggers or signals from the emerging literature that will shape the field in the near future. The overall goal of this body of research is to increase cognitive and brain health to promote effective functioning of individuals across the lifespan.

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Charles H. Hillman, Bruce N. Cuthbert, Margaret M. Bradley and Peter J. Lang

Psychophysiological responses of two rival sport fan groups were assessed within the context of Lang’s biphasic theory of emotion. Twenty-four participants, placed in two groups based on their identification with local sport teams, viewed 6 pictures from 6 categories: team-relevant pleasant sport, team-irrelevant sport, team-relevant unpleasant sport, erotica, household objects, and mutilation. Fans rated appetitive sport pictures higher in pleasure and arousal compared to aversive sport pictures. Physiological measures (startle probe-P3, the startle eye-blink reflex, slow cortical potentials to picture onset, and skin conductance) differentiated both appetitive and aversive team-relevant categories from team-irrelevant pictures, and increased orbicularis oculi EMG was found only for team-relevant appetitive pictures. These results suggest there are differences between rival sport fans in response to the same pictorial stimuli, and further suggest that fans provide an ideal population in which to measure motivation toward appetitive stimuli.

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Sean P. Deeny, Charles H. Hillman, Christopher M. Janelle and Bradley D. Hatfield

Electroencephalographic (EEG) coherence was assessed during a 4-s aiming period prior to trigger pull in expert marksmen (n = 10) and skilled shooters (n = 9) over the course of a regulation round of small-bore rifle shooting. Although both groups were highly experienced, the skilled group had lower ability. Given that specialization of cortical function occurs as domain-specific expertise increases, experts were predicted to exhibit less cortico-cortical communication, especially between cognitive and motor areas, compared to the skilled group. Coherence was assessed for three frequency bands (low alpha, 8–10 Hz; high alpha, 10–13 Hz; and low beta, 13–22 Hz) using sites F3, Fz, F4, C3, Cz, C4, T3, T4, P3, Pz, P4, O1, and O2. Compared to the skilled group, experts exhibited lower coherence between left temporal (T3) and mid-line frontal (Fz) regions for low-alpha and low-beta frequencies, lower coherence for high-alpha between all left hemisphere sites and (Fz), and lower coherence between T3 and all midline sites for the low-beta band. The results reveal that, compared to lesser skilled shooters, experts engage in less cortico-cortical communication, particularly between left temporal association and motor control regions, which implies decreased involvement of cognition with motor processes.

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Darla M. Castelli, Charles H. Hillman, Sarah M. Buck and Heather E. Erwin

The relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement has received much attention owing to the increasing prevalence of children who are overweight and unfit, as well as the inescapable pressure on schools to produce students who meet academic standards. This study examined 259 public school students in third and fifth grades and found that field tests of physical fitness were positively related to academic achievement. Specifically, aerobic capacity was positively associated with achievement, whereas BMI was inversely related. Associations were demonstrated in total academic achievement, mathematics achievement, and reading achievement, thus suggesting that aspects of physical fitness may be globally related to academic performance in preadolescents. The findings are discussed with regards to maximizing school performance and the implications for educational policies.

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Jungyun Hwang, I-Min Lee, Austin M. Fernandez, Charles H. Hillman and Amy Shirong Lu

Purpose: This study examined differences in energy expenditure and bodily movement among children of different weight status during exergames that varied in mode and intensity. Methods: Fifty-seven 8- to 12-year-old children including overweight/obesity (n = 28) and normal weight (n = 29) played three 10-minute interval Xbox One exergames (Fruit Ninja, Kung-Fu, and Shape Up) categorized based on predominantly upper-, whole-, or lower-limb movement, respectively. The authors measured bodily movement through accelerometry and obtained energy expenditure and metabolic equivalent (MET) via indirect calorimetry. Results: Energy expended during gameplay was the highest in Shape Up (P < .01) and higher in Kung-Fu than Fruit Ninja (P < .01). Absolute energy expenditure was significantly higher in overweight/obese children (P < .01), but not when controlling for body mass across 3 exergames (P > .05). Based on the MET cut-points, overweight/obese children spent more time at light intensity (<3 METs) for Fruit Ninja (P < .05) and Shape Up (P < .01), but less time at vigorous intensity (≥6 METs) for Kung-Fu (P < .01) and Shape Up (P < .01). Lower-limb movements during Shape Up were less in overweight/obese children (P = .03). Conclusion: Although children in both groups expended similar energy relative to their body mass during gameplay, overweight/obese children spent more time at light intensity but less time at vigorous intensity with fewer movements especially while playing a lower limb–controlled exergame.

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Heidi J. Syväoja, Anna Kankaanpää, Jouni Kallio, Harto Hakonen, Janne Kulmala, Charles H. Hillman, Anu-Katriina Pesonen and Tuija H. Tammelin

Background: This study investigated the associations of subjectively and objectively measured physical activity (PA) and sedentary behavior with academic achievement. We further examined whether aerobic fitness, obesity, and bedtime mediate these associations. Methods: This study included 970 children aged 9–15 years (52.3% girls) from 9 schools throughout Finland. Register-based academic achievement [grade point average (GPA)] as well as self-reported and accelerometer-measured PA/sedentary behavior were assessed during spring 2013. Aerobic fitness (assessed via a maximal shuttle run test), body composition (assessed via bioimpedance analysis), and self-reported bedtime were collected. Structural equation modeling was applied to examine the associations. Standardized regression coefficients are presented. Results: Self-reported PA had a direct positive [β = 0.084; 95% confidence interval (CI), 0.023 to 0.145] and an indirect positive association with GPA through higher aerobic fitness (β = 0.061; 95% CI, 0.033 to −0.087). Accelerometer-based PA was not associated with GPA. Self-reported screen time had an indirect negative association with GPA through later bedtime (β = −0.071; 95% CI, −0.096 to −0.035) and lower aerobic fitness (β = −0.039; 95% CI, −0.059 to 0.019). Nonscreen sedentary time had a direct positive (β = 0.193; 95% CI, 0.101 to −0.289) and an indirect negative association with GPA through lower aerobic fitness (β = −0.040; 95% CI, −0.063 to −0.016). Conclusions: Participating in PA, avoiding excessive screen time, and going to bed earlier may benefit academic achievement.

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Christopher M. Janelle, Charles H. Hillman, Ross J. Apparies, Nicholas P. Murray, Launi Meili, Elizabeth A. Fallon and Bradley D. Hatfield

The purpose of this study was to examine whether variability in gaze behavior and cortical activation would differentiate expert (n = 12) and nonexpert (n = 13) small-bore rifle shooters. Spectral-activity and eye-movement data were collected concurrently during the course of a regulation indoor sequence of 40 shots from the standing position. Experts exhibited significantly superior shooting performance, as well as a significantly longer quiet eye period preceding shot execution than did nonexperts. Additionally, expertise interacted with hemispheric activation levels: Experts demonstrated a significant increase in left-hemisphere alpha and beta power, accompanied by a reduction in right-hemisphere alpha and beta power, during the preparatory period just prior to the shot. Nonexperts exhibited similar hemispheric asymmetry, but to a lesser extent than did experts. Findings suggest systematic expertise-related differences in ocular and cortical activity during the preparatory phase leading up to the trigger pull that reflects more optimal organization of the neural structures needed to achieve high-level performance.

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Lauren B. Raine, John R. Biggan, Carol L. Baym, Brian J. Saliba, Neal J. Cohen and Charles H. Hillman

There is a growing trend of decreasing physical fitness among adolescents, which may result not only in poorer physical health, but also in poorer academic achievement. Purpose: The purpose of this study was to investigate the changes in aerobic fitness and academic achievement in reading and mathematics during middle school. Methods: This study employed a prospective, longitudinal cross-sectional design. Fifty-two adolescents were followed from sixth grade through eighth grade. In the spring, sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students completed Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run tests measuring aerobic fitness. In addition, students also completed Illinois Standards Achievement Test academic achievement tests in reading and mathematics. Results: Changes in aerobic fitness between sixth and eighth grade were positively related to changes in academic achievement in both reading and mathematics between sixth and eighth grade. Conclusion: These data suggest that changes in aerobic fitness may modulate changes in academic achievement. These findings highlight the importance of physical activity and have broad relevance for educational systems and policies.