Design a site like this with
Get started

Physical Fitness and Exercise Increase Cognitive Performance and Brain Health

There is so much evidence supporting the brain benefits of exercise and physical fitness that I am convinced this is our magic pill. I was also convinced that I knew all I needed to know about reaping the benefits from exercise. When a friend passed me a copy John Ratey’s book – Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain – I almost dismissed it. Surely there was nothing more he could possibly share that I hadn’t already read about. Just as I was about to reach past it to read a different book, I thought about how I am always reminding G1 to keep his mind open. It is a mistake to believe we know everything and the greatest danger lies in the fact that we close ourselves off to other possibilities. So I started reading Spark and it did not disappoint.

exercise and physical fitness - Spark

These were some of my main takeaways from the book:

Personal Bests

Personal bests was one of the ideas from Spark that caught my attention. Being a nonathlete in school, I can identify with the feeling of discouragement in PE when you’re not as good as the other kids. Phil Lawler (PE teacher from Naperville Central High School) assessed his students on effort rather than skill. That meant they didn’t have to be natural athletes to do well. It also had the added benefit of promoting a growth mindset as the students link their effort to their PE grades.

…[Lawler] quickly recognized that the grading scale discouraged the slowest runners. To offer nonathletes a shot at good marks, the department bought a couple of Schwinn Airdyne bikes and allowed students to earn extra credit. They could come in on their own time and ride five miles to raise their grades. “So any kid who wanted to get an A could get an A if he worked for it… Somewhere in this process, we got into personal bests. Anytime you got a personal best, no matter what it was, you moved up a letter grade.”

Tracking Your Child’s Effort

It can be pretty subjective to assess how much effort a student puts in just by looking at them work out. As Phil Lawler discovered, heart rate monitors are a better way to track student effort.

During the weekly mile, he tested the [heart rate monitor] on a sixth-grade girl who was thin but not the least bit athletic. When Lawler downloaded her stats, he couldn’t believe what he found. “Her average heart rate was 187!” he exclaims. As an eleven-year-old, her maximum heart rate would have been roughly 209, meaning she was plugging away pretty close to full tilt. “When she crossed the finish line, she went up to 207!”

“Normally, I would have gone to that girl and said, you need to get your ass in gear, little lady! It was really that moment that caused dramatic changes in our overall program. I started thinking back to all the kids we must have turned off to exercise because we weren’t able to give them credit. I didn’t have an athlete in class who knew how to work as hard as that little girl.”

Suddenly I wonder if I been expecting too much during our family hikes. Perhaps it’s time to get the boys a heart rate monitor to check their effort more objectively.

Physical Fitness is the Key

The link between exercise and the brain is physical fitness:

  • Higher IQ is linked to higher heart and lung capacity
  • Improving fitness could increase IQ

Studies from the California Department of Education consistently demonstrate that fitter students have better test results. In a review of over 850 studies examining the effects of physical activity on school-aged children, they concluded that physical activity has a positive influence on memory, concentration, and classroom behaviour.

“I tell people it’s not my job as a PE teacher to make kids fit. My job is to make them know all the things they need to know to keep themselves fit. Exercise in itself is not fun. It’s work. So if you can make them understand it, show them the benefits – that’s a radical transformation.” – Paul Zientarski, PE Coordinator at Naperville Central High School

It’s not just about getting kids involved in sports and it doesn’t matter whether they’re good or bad at it. What we’re after is physical fitness. We want children to develop a healthy relationship with physical activity for life where the focus is on being fit. As Phil Lawler discovered with his runners, being fast didn’t necessarily have anything to do with being fit.

Physical Fitness Requires Heart Rate Monitors

In order to build physical fitness, you need to know what heart rate zone your child is working in. That’s where heart rate monitors come in handy.

Physical Fitness
Image Source: Polar

If we’re going to monitor heart rate, we need accuracy. I don’t want to get into this because it is a huge discussion that is an entire article in itself. You can read about it here if you’re really interested:

The bottom line – for now anyway – is that chest straps are still more accurate than optical wrist monitors. Since our aim is to meet specific fitness goals, accuracy is paramount.

Exercise and Learning

How exercise improves learning:

1. Prepares the brain for learning by increasing alertness, attention, and motivation.

While most of us think of motivation as the thing we need to get exercising, neurophysiology shows us that exercise creates a positive feedback on motivation. Exercise increases the levels of dopamine in brain, a hormone that motivates us to act. It also increases the stress hormone, cortisol, which boosts attentiveness, our desire to perform, and motivation.

2. Makes the brain learn faster and function more efficiently.

3. Promotes the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus.  

Sustained aerobic exercise promotes neurogenesis – the creation of new neurons. These new neurons are important among other things for learning temporally and/or spatially complex tasks.  – Science Daily.

While exercise may create new neurons, it is equally important to perform mentally challenging activities after exercise to build and strengthen connections to these neurons. In other words, creating these neurons won’t do much for us unless we wire them into our existing network through complex brain activity.

Physical Fitness and the Exercise Prescription

If exercise is a magic pill that provides all these wonderful benefits, then what is the prescription? What sort of exercise should our children be aiming for, when should they be doing them, and how much is required? Unfortunately, that’s not quite clear, yet, but this is what was suggested in Spark:

  • When to work out: before a cognitively demanding task – e.g. a project that requires complex analysis, a brainstorming session, or learning new material.
  • How much to work out: aerobic exercise, like jogging for 30 minutes, 2 to 3 times a week for twelve weeks was linked to improved executive function.
  • What sort of work out: aerobic exercise (like running) combined with activities that require complex motor skills (like rock climbing). Alternatively, you can choose a sport that simultaneously challenges the cardiovascular system and the brain (like tennis or dancing).

Aerobic exercise creates the neurons and factors that support it. Activities with complex movement builds the connections between the neurons. Combine both activities and you’ll have a pretty effective exercise prescription.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

One thought on “Physical Fitness and Exercise Increase Cognitive Performance and Brain Health

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: