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Weight and Physical Activity Correlated with Cognition Among Children

Normal weight, physically active children thought to have higher executive function.

A study published in Pediatric Exercise Science demonstrates that a child’s weight and physical activity level both affect thinking and learning.

The study included a total of 90 children from between the ages of 8 and 11 years old. Half of the children were normal weight and half of them were overweight. The study further stratified them into inactive and active cohorts, although the overweight children were all physically inactive. Normal weight, active children were picked from extracurricular activities like sports program. Inactive, normal weight and inactive, overweight children were picked from schools in Augusta, Georgia.  Endpoints included Cognitive Assessment System results (CAS), parent-reported physical activity, self-reported physical activity, and anthropometrics.

The authors found that normal weight, physically active children had higher measures for planning (M ± SD = 109 ± 11 vs. 100 ± 11, p = .011) and attention (108 ± 11 vs. 100 ± 11, p = .013) than overweight, physically inactive children. The normal weight children who were not physically active also had higher attention scores than the overweight children (108 ± 11 vs. 100 ± 11, p = .01).

There were also differences between normal weight, physically active children and normal weight, physically inactive children. Again, the physically active children received higher scores for planning (113 ± 10 vs. 102 ±1 3, p = .008 and attention (111 ± 11 vs. 104 ± 12, p = .06) than their normal weight but physically inactive counterparts.

These study results suggest that both facets – physical activity and weight – influence thinking in children. The biggest benefit seems to come with being physically active and normal weight. The results of this study may be used to help identify children who may eventually struggle with school, and can be interpreted to suggest that increasing a child’s activity level and decreasing weight can help with academic performance. Since the study was small and not generalizable, it should be performed on a larger scale to solidly make recommendations. It should also include physically active but overweight children.

Practice Pearls:

  • A small study suggests that being normal weight and physically active improves attention and planning in children.
  • Normal weight was associated with increased attention scores, whereas physical activity was associated with increased planning scores.
  • Getting children to become more physically active and achieve normal weights may improve academic performance.

Davis CL, Tkacz JP, Tomporowski PD, Bustamante EE. Independent Associations of Organized Physical Activity and Weight Status with Children’s Cognitive Functioning: A Matched-Pairs Design. Pediatr Exerc Sci. 2015. Published online August 6, 2015.