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Study: Youth exercise leads to cognitive development

Kids exercising can have major benefits that extend beyond physical health, according to a new study. (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON — New research shows that when children exercise their bodies, they are exercising their brains as well.

Scientists at the University of Illinois followed 221 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds for nine months. Half were in an after-school fitness program; the others, on a wait list.

The scientists found that those in the exercise group not only became more physically fit, but also their cognitive skills improved — most notably, their ability to stay focused and shift easily and accurately from one cognitive task to another.

Specialists in children’s health see the findings as more evidence that exercise has an important role to play in boosting the overall health of children.

“I think exercise has a lot of different effects, and it is not just about getting your heart rate up or burning “X” number of calories,” says Dr. Nadia Hashimi, a pediatrician who works in the emergency room at Children’s National Medical Center.

She says children exercise differently than adults. They run around and engage with their peers, and every time they pass a ball or play tag, they develop their social skills and practice quick decision-making.

“So it is not just about moving your feet in a rote movement; it’s figuring out the world around you,” Hashimi says.

She admits she was not surprised by the results of the University of Illinois study, published in the journal Pediatrics — saying it is very much in line with what she has observed on the job.

Hashimi says doctors already know the toll that inactivity takes on kids’ overall health. She says obesity is an epidemic, and children are showing up with maladies once only seen in adults, such as high cholesterol and diabetes.

Her advice to parents: limit screen time, and make sure your children get plenty of exercise.

She says the real message of this new study is to get children up and moving around for a multitude of reasons, including the boost to their brains.

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