(CNN)The familiar saying that exercise is good for the body and mind may be especially true for children. Kids who are physically fit actually have differences in their brain structures that might
allow them to do better in math, according to a new study.
Researchers put a small group of children ages 9 and 10 to the test both mentally, with standardized math and reading exams, and physically, testing their endurance on a treadmill. They also scanned their brains using MRI and found that the children who could run for longer periods of time on the treadmill had thinner sections of gray matter in the front of their brains, which actually signifies more brain maturation, than those with lower stamina. These children also ran laps around their less fit peers in the math test.
“It’s part of a natural process that the brain goes through a period of thinning during adolescence (as) brain connections that are deemed not necessary are thinned out. (Fit) kids may be further along in this maturation process,” said Charles H. Hillman, professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Hillman is one of the authors of the study, which was published in August in the online journal PLOS ONE.
This part of the brain, also called the frontal cortex, could be especially key for academic performance because it is involved in working memory, which helps us figure out math problems, for example, and cognitive flexibility, or the ability to tune out distractions, Hillman said.
Despite the large body of research suggesting that physical activity pays off in the classroom, many schools have cut back their physical education classes and recess time, according to a 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine, a private nonprofit scientific organization.
“The vast majority of schools were not serving kids in terms of their physical activity needs,” said Hillman, who was a member of the committee that wrote the Institute of Medicine report.