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November 2010

Research Wrap-up

 

Fit Kids Do Better in School

schoolkids

While school boards across the nation continue to cut physical education programs, new research suggests that this could be detrimental to kids’ brains as well as their bodies. These two new studies, which examined the effects of physical fitness on brain size and functioning in children, add to the growing body of research that suggests that fitter kids do better in school.

Researchers from the Department of Psychology and Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, conducted two separate studies to determine how physical fitness affects both the shape and function of children’s brains. The first study recruited nine- and ten-year-old kids to run on a treadmill to determine their levels of fitness. The highest- and lowest-fit kids were identified and completed a series of computer-based cognitive challenges to determine how well they could filter out unnecessary information and pay attention to important cues. Consistent with previous studies, researchers found that the fitter kids performed better on these tests. They next used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the children’s brains for clues as to why the fitter kids did better. They concluded that physically fit kids had significantly larger basal ganglia, which is a part of the brain linked to attention and the ability to coordinate actions and thoughts. When the researchers controlled for other variables (e.g., BMI, socioeconomic backgrounds), they concluded that being physically fit actually enlarged this part of the brain.

The second study, conducted by many of the same researchers, tested the fitness levels of a second group of nine- and ten-year-olds, but had them complete tests focusing on complex memory, which is associated with an area of the brain called the hippocampus. As was the case with the basal ganglia, brain scans revealed that the fittest kids had larger hippocampi. Both studies note that the basal ganglia and the hippocampus interact both structurally and functionally, and are responsible for some of the brain’s most intricate and complex thinking. Therefore, given that exercise appears to increase the size of these regions—and even strengthen the connection between them—being physically fit may actually improve brain power or, as the authors put it, “enhance neurocognition.”

Although the researchers did not recommend a specific level of fitness for optimum brain functioning, previous studies suggest that even as little as 20 minutes of walking prior to an exam can help raise kids’ test scores. And given the potential brain-building benefits, giving kids some time during the school day to be physically active would have to be considered time well spent.

Immune-boosting Benefits Provide Good Excuse to Book a Massage

massage There’s no question that a massage can make you feel great, but many of us put massages in the category of luxuries we should only occasionally indulge. But new research suggests that, much like the proverbial apple, a single massage has immune-boosting benefits that may, in fact, help keep the doctor away.

In a study published in the October issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles took blood samples before and after 53 healthy adults received either a 45-minute light-touch massage or a 45-minute Swedish massage (a more vigorous form of massage). Specifically, researchers looked at blood markers related to neuroendocrine and immune function, including arginine-vasopressin (a hormone related to aggressive behavior), the stress hormone cortisol, and circulating phenotypic lymphocyte markers.

Compared to those who received a light-touch massage, subjects given a Swedish massage experienced considerable changes in their blood tests. Levels of both arginine-vasopressin and cortisol decreased, while the levels of circulating lymphocytes—a marker of immune system functioning—increased significantly, leading researchers to conclude that, in the words of lead researcher Dr. Mark Rapaport, “massage doesn’t only feel good, it also may be good for you.”


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