The science is in. All kids deserve to thrive in mind and body. But in order for them to reach their full mental, emotional and intellectual potential, we have to foster the important connection between the health of the body and of the brain.

Their bodies have to move to get the wheels in their brains turning. Kids need to be active. Their brain health depends on it. It’s time for them to drop the phones, get off the couch and break a sweat – now more than ever.

Brainy BrookFor decades, we’ve known that physical activity improves heart health, helps maintain healthy body weights and builds strong bones and muscles in kids across a range of skills and abilities. But we may have been overlooking what physical activity does for one their most vital and complex organ: the brain.

A growing body of evidence indicates that physical activity in childhood is essential for a healthy brain and leads to improved:

  • thinking and learning
  • emotional regulation and self-control
  • problem-solving ability
  • memory
  • brain plasticity – the growth of new brain tissue
  • stress management
  • ability to cope with anxiety and depressive symptoms
  • self-esteem and self-worth
  • attention and focus

While 62% of 3- to 4-year-olds are reaching their recommended physical activity levels as outlined in the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years, only 35% of 5- to 17-year-olds are achieving the recommended activity levels for their age group. We also know that 76% of 3- to 4-year-olds and 51% of 5- to 17-year-olds are engaging in more screen-time than is recommended by the Canadian Guidelines for screen-based sedentary behaviours.

Canadian kids are sitting too much and moving too little to reach their full potential.

[see-also]

Moving > Cramming

  • Brainy Brook Student Students who exercise before a test show stronger brain function than those who are less active.26 So, next time students feel the pressure to cram, encourage them to take an active break from studying: some heart-pumping physical activity may actually be the smarter study technique
  • When the body doesn’t move enough, the brain can’t perform to its fullest potential. Children with poor aerobic fitness appear to have more difficulty solving problems27-29 and are more likely to make mistakes when trying to sort out a challenge.30

Busy Bodies = Bigger Brains

  • Sections of the brain dedicated to memory and learning (hippocampus and basal ganglia) are larger in active children in comparison to their less active peers.31
  • Being physically active can boost memory in children and youth,32,33 including those with some brain-based disabilities (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy).34,35-37

Active Bodies → Innovative Ideas

  • light bulb iconActive kids are better equipped to get creative.30
  • Even if they aren’t artistic, creativity can manifest in think-on-your-feet scenarios such as strategizing for a game, leading a team project or solving a math problem. Without adequate physical activity, it’s difficult for kids to tap into their full potential!

Zooming Around Helps Them Zoom In!

  • Kids who participate in physical activity have more focused and longer attention spans, compared to their less active peers.32,33
  • This correlation appears to be consistent for all children and youth, including those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder.38

+ Boosting kids’ physical activity levels could be the missing part of the equation in supporting their mental health.

Continued after summary of grades…

Breaking a Sweat Releases Happy Hormones Kids Who Move Feel Great!

  • Just like adults who love that “runner’s high” from going the distance, kids who are active experience the same rush of feel-good brain chemicals (serotonin and dopamine).37
  • Children and youth who are fit benefit from this rush of chemicals and experience fewer depression-related symptoms than those who are not fit.35,36
  • Kids with brain-based disabilities are at an increased risk for mental health problems, so they have even more to gain from getting, and staying, active.31

↑ Movement = ↓ Symptoms of Anxiety

  • sport ballsEvidence suggests that physical activity may help lower feelings of anxiety in children and youth,39,40 Dance and team sports may be especially effective in children and youth with brain-based disabilities.41,42
  • Canadian kids are on the right track here, with 77% of 5- to 19-year-oldsand 46% of 3- to 4-year-olds participating in organized physical activities or sport.2014-16 CANPLAY

↑ Movement = ↓ Stress

  • Research suggests that physical activity is an effective tool in alleviating social and academic stress in young people; those kids who are less active have measurably higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their bodies.43
  • Moreover, being active not only appears to bolster kids’ resiliency when they are dealing with stress, but it appears to help them recover from stressful situations faster.43
  • Being active outdoors, even for a simple walk, is a powerful antidote for adolescents facing stress.20 But with only 37% of 11- to 15-year-olds in Canada playing outdoors for more than 2 hours per day (outside of school hours)2013-14 HBSC we have a long way to go to ensure they are reaping these mental health benefits.

↑ Movement = ↑ Self-esteem

  • Social media plays a major role in self-esteem for many young people. Kids are subjected to never-ending online scrutiny from their peers. Getting active can be a protective tool to bolster kids’ self-esteem, confidence and self-worth.20
  • Real-world physical activity can distract them from these virtual experiences that could erode how they perceive themselves.45
  • When children and youth get active, research shows that they have improved self-esteem, which in turn leads to better moods and an overall more positive sense of satisfaction with how they perceive themselves.46-51 Yet, 5- to 11-year-olds and 12- to 17-year-olds in Canada spend 2.3 and 4.1 hours per day, respectively, in screen time pursuits,2014-15 CHMS leaving little time for offline, active movement.

We all want to see Canadian kids realize their potential physically, emotionally and cognitively. A healthy brain is one of their greatest resources – today and into the future.

Engaging kids in daily physical activity may be the most accessible, but underutilized, way to support them on this journey. Let’s work to balance the equation.

Read the Expert Statement

ParticipACTION releases an Expert Statement on Physical Activity and Brain Health in Children and Youth.

Citation Information

The citations listed below are those referenced by text on this page. For a full list of references please read the Full Report.

26 Voss MW, Chaddock L, Kim JS, Vanpatter M, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Cohen NJ, Hillman CH, Kramer AF. Aerobic fitness is associated with greater efficiency of the network underlying cognitive control in preadolescent children. Neuroscience. 2011;199:166-176.

27 Ringenbach SD, Holzapfel SD, Mulvey GM, Jimenez A, Benson A, Richter M. The effects of assisted cycling therapy (ACT) and voluntary cycling on reaction time and measures of executive function in adolescents with Down syndrome. J Intellect Disabil Res. 2016 Nov;60(11):1073-1085.

28 Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Johnson CR, Chaddock L, Voss MW, Cohen NJ, Kramer AF, Hillman CH. Cardiorespiratory fitness and the flexible modulation of cognitive control in preadolescent children. J Cogn Neurosci. 2011;23(6):1332-1345.

29 Kao SC, Drollette ES, Scudder MR, Raine LB, Westfall DR, Pontifex MB, Hillman CH. Aerobic fitness is associated with cognitive control strategy in preadolescent children. J Mot Behav. 2017;49(2):150-162.

30 Diamond A. Executive functions. Annu Rev Psychol. 2013;64:135-168.

31 Chaddock-Heyman L, Erickson KI, Holtrop JL, Voss MW, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Hillman CH, Kramer AF. Aerobic fitness is associated with greater white matter integrity in children. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014;8:584.

32 Jones RA, Downing K, Rinehart NJ, Barnett LM, May T, McGillivray JA, Papadopoulos NV, Skouteris H, Timperio A, Hinkley T. Physical activity, sedentary behavior and their correlates in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: a systematic review. PLoS One. 2017;12(2):e0172482.

33 Korkmaz B. Theory of mind and neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. Pediatr Res. 2011;69(5 Pt 2):101R-8R.

34 Santos S, Jiménez S, Sampaio J, Leite N. Effects of the Skills4Genius sports-based training program in creative behavior. PLoS One. 2017;12(2):e0172520.

35 Chaddock L, Erickson KI, Prakash RS, Kim JS, Voss MW, Vanpatter M, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Konkel A, Hillman CH, Cohen NJ, Kramer AF. A neuroimaging investigation of the association between aerobic fitness, hippocampal volume, and memory performance in preadolescent children. Brain Res. 2010;1358:172-183.

36 Chaddock L, Erickson KI, Prakash RS, VanPatter M, Voss MW, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Hillman CH, Kramer AF. Basal ganglia volume is associated with aerobic fitness in preadolescent children. Dev Neurosci. 2010;32(3):249-256.

37 Chaddock-Heyman L, Erickson KI, Kienzler C, King M, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Hillman CH, Kramer AF. The role of aerobic fitness in cortical thickness and mathematics achievement in preadolescent children. PLoS One. 2015;10(8):e0134115.

38 Chambers SA. Short-burst-high-intensity exercise to improve working memory in preadolescent children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest LLC; 2016.

39 Schaeffer DJ, Krafft CE, Schwarz NF, Chi L, Rodrigue AL, Pierce JE, Allison JD, Yanasak NE, Liu T, Davis CL, McDowell JE. An 8-month exercise intervention alters frontotemporal white matter integrity in overweight children. Psychophysiology. 2014;51(8):728-733.

40 Krafft CE, Schaeffer DJ, Schwarz NF, Chi L, Weinberger AL, Pierce JE, Rodrigue AL, Allison JD, Yanasak NE, Liu T, Davis CL, McDowell JE. Improved frontoparietal white matter integrity in overweight children is associated with attendance at an after-school exercise program. Dev Neurosci. 2014;36(1):1-9.

41 Hartshorn K, Olds L, Field T, Delage J, Cullen C, Escalona A. Creative movement therapy benefits children with autism. Early Child Dev Care. 2001;166(1):1-5.

42 Pan CY, Chu CH, Tsai CL, Lo SY, Cheng YW, Liu YJ. A racket-sport intervention improves behavioral and cognitive performance in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Res Dev Disabil. 2016;57:1-10.

43 Hillman CH, Buck SM, Themanson JR, Pontifex MB, Castelli DM. Aerobic fitness and cognitive development: Event-related brain potential and task performance indices of executive control in preadolescent children. Dev Psychol. 2009;45(1):114-129.

44 Eime RM, Young JA, Harvey JT, Charity MJ, Payne WR. A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2013;10:98.

45 Twenge JM, Martin GN, Campbell WK. Decreases in psychological well-being among American adolescents after 2012 and links to screen time during the rise of smartphone technology. Emotion. 2018. In press.

46 Hermens N, Super S, Verkooijen KT, Koelen MA. A systematic review of life skill development through sports programs serving socially vulnerable youth. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2017;88(4):408-424.

47 Smith JJ, Eather N, Morgan PJ, Plotnikoff RC, Faigenbaum AD, Lubans DR. The health benefits of muscular fitness for children and adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sport Med. 2014;44(9):1209-1223.

48 Reddon H, Meyre D, Cairney J. Physical activity and global self-worth in a longitudinal study of children. Med Sci Sport Exerc. 2017;49(8):1606-1613.

49 Babic MJ, Morgan PJ, Plotnikoff RC, Lonsdale C, White RL, Lubans DR.. Physical activity and physical self-concept in youth: systematic review and meta-analysis. Sport Med. 2014;44(11):1589-1601.

50 Bremer E, Crozier M, Lloyd M. A systematic review of the behavioural outcomes following exercise interventions for children and youth with autism spectrum disorder. Autism. 2016;20(8):899-915.

51 Maïano C, Ninot G, Erraïs B. Effects of alternated sport competition in perceived competence for adolescent males with mild to moderate mental retardation. Int J Rehabil Res. 2001;24:51-58.

57 Chaput JP, Colley RC, Aubert S, Carson V, Janssen I, Roberts KC, Tremblay MS. Proportion of preschool-aged children meeting the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines and associations with adiposity: results from the Canadian Health Measures Survey. BMC Public Health. 2017;17(Suppl 5):829.

106 Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute. Bulletin 5: active transportation among children and youth. Ottawa: Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute; 2018. URL: www.cflri.ca/document/bulletin-5-active-transportation-among-children-and-youth.

144 Gray C, Larouche R, Barnes JD, Colley RC, Tremblay MS, Cowie Bonne J, Arthur M, Cameron C, Chaput JP, Faulkner G, Janssen I, Kolen AM, Manske S, Salmon A, Spence JC, Timmons B. Are we driving our kids to unhealthy habits? Results from the Active Healthy Kids Canada 2013 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2014;11(6):6009-6020.

237 Tremblay MS, Longmuir PE, Barnes JD, Belanger K, Anderson KD, Bruner B, Copeland JL, Gregg MJ, Hall N, Kolen AM, Lane KN, Law B, MacDonald DJ, Martin LJ, Saunders TJ, Sheehan D, Stone MR, Woodruff SJ. Physical literacy levels of Canadian children aged 8-12 years: descriptive and normative results from the RBC Learn to Play – CAPL Project. BMC Public Health. In press.

296 Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute. Bulletin 01: school policies supporting physical activity and sport. Ottawa: Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute; 2016. URL: www.cflri.ca/document/bulletin-01-school-policies-supporting-physical-activity-and-sport.

297 Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute. Bulletin 18: instruction of physical education. Ottawa: Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute; 2018. URL: www.cflri.ca/document/bulletin-18-instruction-physical-education.

317 Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute. Bulletin 15: availability of physical activity and sport strategies. Ottawa: Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute; 2017. URL: www.cflri.ca/document/bulletin-15-availability-physical-activity-and-sport-strategies.

339 Government of Canada. Budget 2018: table of contents. Ottawa: Government of Canada; 2018. URL: www.budget.gc.ca/2018/docs/plan/toc-tdm-en.html.

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