There's More to Childhood Exercise Than Physical Fitness

CC BY 2.0. Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office

It has a lasting effect on adult psychology, too.

Children who exercise become healthier adults, according to research cited in The Guardian. While many parents think of exercise as a purely physical endeavor, good for staving off obesity and dissipating kids’ excessive amounts of energy, scientists have pointed out recently that there’s a powerful psychological component, too.

Exercise in childhood is linked to success later in life. In Denmark and Sweden, where the link between physical activity and achievements has been analyzed in great detail, researchers have found “cardiovascular fitness appeared to be predictive of cognition in middle age. In other words, the more exercise they had done during adolescence, the more likely they were to be successful professionally.”

When children exercise regularly, especially prior to puberty, it has a direct effect on the developing brain, primarily the hippocampus, which makes decisions based on thought, rather than impulse, and does not fully develop until the early 20s. It is a crucial part of making ‘successful’ life decisions. Says Charles Hillman, a professor at Northeastern University:

“Exercise increases metabolic demand and, in response, the brain increases angiogenesis – building more capillary beds to transport blood and oxygen to different regions. It also increases the formation of synapses between neurons, increasing the ability of different parts of the brain to talk to each other.”

This leads to another benefit – reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease later in life among adults who exercised as children. This plays out in a few different ways. People in their 60s and 70s with a history of physical activity have greater blood flow to the brain and stronger, healthier neurons, which staves off mental decline. Also, those older adults who retain a positive memory of physical activity as kids, thanks to neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, are more likely to continue exercising because it makes them feel good.

Finally, researchers have found that childhood exercise creates a fascinating ‘memory’ within the body that lasts for years. If a child is physically active, it “induces a pattern of changes in the ways genes express themselves which stays with them for many years.” According to Elwyn Firth, a professor at Auckland University:

“There are big differences in their bone mass, density and mineral content compared to those who haven’t done that exercise. Even if the exercise ceases in adulthood, these differences persist for 10 years or more, especially if the exercise began before puberty.”

So even if an adult becomes sedentary later in life, he or she will continue to reap the benefits of having been physically active at a younger age.

Knowing these benefits is especially relevant these days as physical activity slowly disappears from modern childhood. There are fewer opportunities for kids to be active, outside of organized sports, and the consequences are showing themselves in rising obesity rates and the development of metabolic-related conditions. Kids must be encouraged to get active and stay active, whether it’s playing on a team or simply riding a bike to school, jumping on a pogo stick, or playing tag in the yard with friends.