Kids Who Move Can Grow Their Brain

If there is one thing that Charles Hillman wants parents and teachers to understand, it is the power of aerobic activity to improve the brains of young children.  From his Neurocognitive Kinesiology Lab at the University of Illinois, Professor Hillman has produced study after study showing not only cognitive improvement in the classroom but also the brain’s physical changes that occur when kids become more fit.  

His latest research, in collaboration with postdoctoral researcher Laura Chaddock-Heyman and Arthur Kramer, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, reveals more compact white-matter tracts in the brains of a group of 9 and 10 year olds who were in better shape than their peers.

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Why Kids Need Their Recess Time At School

Ask a group of grade school students to name their favorite class and the overwhelming and immediate response is “recess!”  Kids are not wired to sit still for hours focused on learning math equations or memorizing facts.  They’re built to move and need the time in their day to unplug their brain and restart their legs.  

However, school administrators and teachers are facing growing pressure to reduce this play time in favor of more instruction time to meet tougher academic standards.  Two new research studies argue that would be counterproductive showing that exercise and aerobic fitness are key contributors to cognitive performance.

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Thinking Faster Wins Olympic Medals For Brazil Volleyball

Brazil women volleyball players
Think of Brazil, then think of a sport.  Most of us would respond with soccer, or “futebol” in Portuguese, thanks to their five World Cup victories and national obsession with the sport.

However, over the last 12 years, Brazilian volleyball has dominated the world.  The men’s national team is currently ranked first in the world and has won a gold and two silver medals in the last three Olympics.  The women’s team has back to back Olympic gold medals, beating the U.S. in Beijing and London, and is currently ranked second in the world.
So, when University of Illinois psychology professor Arthur Kramer and his research team wanted to find out more about how elite athletes take in and process visual information, it wasn't surprising that he and his team visited the starting place for all aspiring Brazilian netters, the Center for the Development of Volleyball (CDV – Saquarema), in Rio de Janeiro.
Arthur Kramer
Arthur Kramer
Heloisa Alves
Heloisa Alves
There he and graduate student Heloisa Alves found 87 of the best men and women players, both adults and juniors, including some of those Olympic medalists, to test their visual and cognitive abilities.  The adult players were in their early 20’s with an average of 10 years of volleyball training.  With an average age of 16, the junior players had received about 5 years of formal training.  For comparison, 67 non-athletes with similar ages and general education were used as a control group.
There are two competing schools of thought for studying the cognitive differences between athletes and non-athletes; the expert performance approach and the component skills approach.  Research using the expert performance method tries to look at mental tasks using sport-specific domains.  For example, to see if an elite volleyball player has better peripheral vision than an amateur, they might be asked to view a volleyball court with moving players while being tested on their reaction time to changes.  Sport scientists feel this is a more relevant test of differences gained by years of training.
The component skills approach removes the sports context from the experiment and tries for a more general comparison of perceptual and cognitive tasks.  This helps to find out if the athlete’s advantage is at a core, fundamental level, not influenced by a sports environment.
Kramer’s team, using a computer based set of tests, chose the component skills method with three main cognitive categories included; executive control, memory and visuo-spatial.  First, in this context, executive control means being able to keep two different tasks and instructions in mind and switching back and forth between them, similar to being able to switch between an offensive and defensive mindset during a volleyball match.  Also, the players were tested on being able to quickly stop a task when new information popped up.  On the court, think of having a play or counterattack in mind, then having to instantly change that plan based on the other team’s actions.
Next, short term memory was tested by first showing a group of shapes, followed by just one shape. The test group had to quickly decide if that single shape was in the original group.  Finally, their spatial awareness was put to the test by seeing a series of different, frequently changing scenes and being asked to quickly detect and track the changes.
As expected, the results showed that the elite players, both adult and juniors, were better than the control group on all but one of the tests.  Their ability to switch between tasks, store objects in memory and track moving objects were significantly better than the non-athletes.  While past research had shown signs of this superiority, Kramer’s experiment was important because it expanded the results to a larger test pool, including men and women and different age group/training levels.
In fact, the women athletes performed just as well as the men athletes, which is interesting since non-athlete men easily outperformed non-athlete women.

“We found that athletes were generally able to inhibit behavior, to stop quickly when they had to, which is very important in sport and in daily life, “ Kramer said. “They were also able to activate, to pick up information from a glance and to switch between tasks more quickly than nonathletes.”
Of course, the gold medal question is if athletes are better because of their training or because of some innate advantage they’ve had since birth?  The Brazilian volleyball program hopes to answer this over time by taking baseline tests of kids in school before they are exposed to the years of structured training.
Kramer’s educated bet is on a combination. “Our understanding is imperfect because we don’t know whether these abilities in the athletes were ‘born’ or ‘made,’ ” he said. “Perhaps people gravitate to these sports because they’re good at both. Or perhaps it’s the training that enhances their cognitive abilities as well as their physical ones. My intuition is that it’s a little bit of both.”
With the 2016 Olympics on home court in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilians are gearing up for what could be their best Games ever and a three-peat for the women.

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