Can Aerobic Fitness Improve Kids’ Minds?

Fitness is not only good for children’s bodies, but also for their minds. A recent study suggest that there is a cognitive benefit to at least a base level of fitness.

Fitness is not only good for children’s bodies, but also for their minds. It is well accepted that poor overall fitness negatively impacts the cognitive ability of children (and adults for that matter.) But what isn’t particularly well understood is which facets of fitness have how much and what kind of impact on cognitive ability.

Aerobic fitness is one of the most fundamental aspects of fitness. It is a good guess as a major factor in cognitive ability, since exercise improves memory in humans and rodents of all ages. For example, in mice, wheel running produces an impressive list of benefits including:

  • Neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons)
  • Brain levels of IGF
  • Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which supports the growth of nerves)
  • Potential angiogenesis (the creation of new blood vessels)
  • Survival of nerves
  • Development of the connections between nerves
  • Learning
  • Memory

This all points to the idea that the enhanced ability to utilize aerobic fuel sources would favorably assist the neurons in doing their thing. A recent study in PLoS ONE dealt with cognitive performance in the face of varying levels of aerobic fitness.

The kids in the study averaged ten years old and were matched for possible confounding factors. What that means is that the researchers chose kids who were similar to each other in important ways (e.g. ages, economic status, and IQs) except for their aerobic fitness. In this way, their aerobic fitness would be the only variable affecting the outcome.

The difference between the children was measured as relative VO2max – the oxygen uptake by the kids was compared to how much they weighed. This meant that it was likely the kids with lower fitness also had higher body fat percentages. Each kid in the two groups went through a study period, and then they were tested on what they recalled.

Indeed, the kids with better aerobic fitness performed better at retention. Interestingly, in the initial tests, the two groups of kids performed about evenly, indicating that immediate cognitive abilities are not impacted by aerobic fitness. However, recall three days afterward was significantly better in the children who were aerobically healthy.

In one of the utilized protocols, the study period itself included a memory test. The kids with better aerobic fitness performed even better when there was a test in the study period and again days later. This could possibly be due to the mitigating effect that aerobic ability has on stress. In other words, repeated memory tests are stressful for anyone, but aerobic fitness helps to tolerate the stress better.

It should be noted that this test separated out already fit kids from unfit kids. The results do not necessarily indicate that further aerobic work would improve cognitive performance even more, as there might be a point of diminishing returns. Rather, the results suggest that there is a cognitive benefit to at least a base level of fitness.

Getting regular exercise keeps kids healthy, and boosts their brain power, especially in the long term. Not only that, but it can teach discipline and fortitude, which can help in many of life’s tasks. If it wasn’t obvious already, the aerobic fitness of your kids should be a major focus as a parent or teacher.


1. Lauren B. Raine, et. al., “The Influence of Childhood Aerobic Fitness on Learning and Memory,” PLoS ONE 8(9): e72666, 2013

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.