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Physical activity habits at early ages influence cognitive function

05 Aug 2017

Less active preschool-aged children are likely to have poor working memory performance at primary school age, according to a study. Similarly, low physical activity at primary school age relates to poor working memory in adolescence.

The prospective study was based on a birth cohort across four Spanish regions. In younger subcohorts (n=1,092), parents reported lifestyle habits of child at 4 years of age through a questionnaire, while children performed a computerized working memory task at 7 years of age. In the older subcohort (n=307), the questionnaire was completed at 6 years of age and working memory was tested at 14 years of age. Adjusted regression models were used to estimate associations between lifestyle habits and working memory.

Results showed that low extracurricular physical activity levels at 4 years of age were associated with a nonsignificant 0.95 percent (95 percent CI, −2.81 to 0.92) reduction in the number of correct responses in the working memory task at 7 years of age. In the older subcohort, low extracurricular physical activity levels at 6 years of age were associated with a greater reduction (4.22 percent; −8.05 to −0.39) in the number of correct responses at age 14 years.

Working memory was not associated with television watching. Other sedentary behaviours (eg, solving puzzles, reading, doing homework and playing video games, among others) at 6 years of age were associated with a 5.07 percent (−9.68 to −0.46) reduction in the number of correct responses in boys at 14 years of age.

The finding of an association between physical activity levels and working memory performance indicates that physical activity habits at early ages may influence academic achievement. It highlights “the importance of promoting physical activity habits and reducing sedentary behaviours early in life for increasing the cognitive potential of children,” researchers said.

Healthy lifestyle habits, including high levels of physical activity and low levels of sedentary behaviour, are deemed essential for the development of basic cognitive, motor and social skills in children. These habits may also influence the development of higher order cognitive processes, of which one of the most relevant for learning is working memory. [Dev Sci 2011;14:1046–1058; Psychon Bull Rev 2013;20:73–86]

Working memory is the faculty to keep information available for a short period of time for cognitive processing. It develops significantly across childhood and adolescence, and has important implications for academic achievement. [J Sci Med Sport 2015;18:673–677; Child Dev 2010;81:1641–1660]

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Dr. Melvin Wu, 01 Dec 2013

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