How Exercise Can Help Children Learn

Exercise can help many children with learning disabilities and ADHD.

We’ve long known about the physical health benefits of exercise, but studies are showing the benefits that physical exercise has on the brain. Regular aerobic activity is linked with increased cognitive abilities, including benefits in memory and learning.

Increased Cognitive Function

Many schools cut or greatly reduce physical education with the notion that more classroom time would increase student learning.

However, several studies have shown a correlation between more time in physical education and improved grades and standardized test scores. A study published in 2007 was conducted by a group of researchers from the Medical College of Georgia who investigated the effects of aerobic exercise on cognitive function of overweight and sedentary children. After 15 weeks of regular exercise, test scores improved significantly from pre-trial results.

A study published in 2011 in Health Psychology discovered specific patterns of brain activity associated with exercise.  The area of the brain affected was the prefrontal cortex, located in the anterior part of the brain, which is associated with problem-solving and complex thought. Another study found that physically fit children identified visual stimuli faster and were able to process information more rapidly than those who were sedentary.

Increased Brain Cell Production

Studies with rodents have clued us into the effect of exercise on neurogenesis (the production of new brain cells).

Researchers discovered that the brains of mice who were more active on the exercise wheel had double the number of new nerve cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory and learning, as compared to mice not provided an exercise wheel in their cage.

Studies at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that monkeys on a running regimen learned new things twice as fast as sedentary monkeys.

The research for this study demonstrated that moderate physical activity is able to improve a person’s alertness, attention span, and ability to process information.

Neuroscientists at Cambridge University have demonstrated that running stimulates the production of new brain cells in the gray matter. The gray matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, and sensory perception such as visual, auditory, emotions, speech, learning, memory, problem-solving, decision making, and other cognitive tasks.

The Effect of Exercise on Executive Functioning

Executive functioning is a set of mental processes that individuals utilize to perform daily tasks and manage cognitive processes, including reasoning, planning, organizing, strategizing, managing time, paying attention to and remembering details and problem-solving. Although further studies are needed to accurately examine the exercise-related benefits for specific components of executive functioning in children and young adults, sufficient studies show that regular physical activity can benefit a range of executive functions.

The benefits in executive functioning are associated with:

  • Increased blood flow to the brain, resulting in faster oxygen and nutrient uptake.
  • Increased production of neurotransmitters in the brain (e.g. serotonin and dopamine) which have shown to have a positive effect on energy levels and mood.
  • Increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels that support areas of the brain involved in learning, memory, and complex thought.


Davis, C., Tomporowski, P., Boyle, C., Waller, J., Miller, P., Naglieri, J., and Gregoski, M. (2007). Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Overweight Children’s Cognitive Functioning. Res Q Exerc Sport. 78 (5): 510-519.

Davis, C., Tomporowski, P., McDowell, J., Austin, B., Miller, P., Yanasak, N., . . . Naglieri, J. (2011). Exercise improves executive function and achievement and laters brain activation in overweight children: A randomized, controlled trial. Health Psychology. 30 (1): 91-98.

Guiney, H. and Machado L. (2013). Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations. Psychon Bull Rev. 20 (1): 73-86.

The Guardian (2010). Start running and watch your brain grow, say scientists. Retrieved from

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