Lindsay, A. 2020, Physical Activity Promotes Brain Development, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, IP
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How Physical Activity Improves Brain and Cognitive Functions

We know that physical activity has great health benefits for our children. But did you know that children who are more physically active perform better academically and have better memory and attention? It’s true! They are more focused, stay on task, have better recall and can move information from their short term to long term memory (1).

However, being physically active means more than just “running around” and “playing outside.” Yes, running, jumping and swimming are important but so are motor skill activities that focus on perceptual motor development and fundamental movement skills. Both improve overall brain function, but they activate children’s brains differently (2). We need all of these brain skills to plan and make decisions from simple to most complex. It affects how we learn, remember, problem-solve, and pay attention (3).


When children perform activities that increase their heart rate and breathing such as walking, running, dancing, skipping and jumping, we call these cardio activities. Studies have shown that these type of activities increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain and improve brain function. One well known researcher in this field, Dr. Hillman, found in children that with only 20 minutes of walking, brain activity was stimulated and showed improvement in performance on academic achievement tests and response accuracy (4).

Studies have shown that cardio activities increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain and improve brain function.

The Effect of Walking on the Brain

The picture below shows with color the stimulation that occurs in the brain with just 20 minutes of walking. Blue indicates lower brain activity while red indicates higher brain activity (1). The before walking picture of the brain is mostly blue, with a little green. The after walking picture of the brain is mostly red, yellow and green, with a little blue. This shows how once the brain is stimulated, oxygen is flowing and the brain is now re-charged and ready to learn more efficiently.

Used with permission, Hillman et al. (2009). Neuroscience, 159, 1044-1054

Motor Skill

Motor skill physical activities are those that involve higher levels of coordination, balance and reaction time such as balancing on an unstable surface or bouncing a basketball. One study showed that bouts of these types of activity led to better performance in concentration and attention tasks than those without specific skills such as simple running (2). They also found these activities help with attention, working memory, and verbal learning and memory. Another study showed that delivery of actual physical activity lessons (structure activity), such as physical education class, in children ages 5-13 generally results in improvements in academic achievement by improving attention and concentration (5).

In order to perform a variety of movements, children need to have opportunities to perform basic fundamental movement skills such as hopping on one foot, spinning around and balancing as well as building perceptual motor skills that help them connect the brain to the body. Remember, young children need to be taught these skills. We can’t rely on them to just happen over time.

Young children need opportunities to build skills that connect the body to the brain.

Brain Breaks

After sitting for long periods of time, it is important that children get up and move! Take a short walk, or do some dancing and then freeze when the music stops. These are often called Brain Breaks! They are short bouts of physical activity that help reset the brain and get blood and oxygen flowing more rapidly while stimulating _____________________________! Many researchers suggest doing brain breaks after 30 mins of sedentary time but never longer than 60 minutes. Brain Breaks can be done with minimal to no equipment or preparation and should be fun and engaging. They should include cardio activities as well as motor skill development such as crossing the midline of the body and challenging the brain to utilize both sides. Examples include Follow the Leader, Red Light Green Light, Count My Moves or Treasure Hunt!

kids in a line, playing follow the leader


  1. Active Living Research. Active Education: Growing Evidence on Physical Activity and Academic Performance.
  2. Koutsandréou, F., Wegner, M., Niemann, C., & Budde, H. (2016). Effects of Motor versus Cardiovascular Exercise Training on Children’s Working Memory. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 48(6), 1144-1152. doi:10.1249/mss.0000000000000869
  3. (2017). Brain Function. Retrieved September 25, 2017.
  4. Hillman, C., Pontifex, M., Raine, L., Castelli, D., Hall, E., & Kramer, A. (2009). The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience, 159(3), 1044-1054. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2009.01.057
  5. Budde H, Voelcker-Rehage C, Pietraßyk-Kendziorra S, Ribeiro P, Tidow G. Acute coordinative exercise improves attentional performance in adolescents. Neurosci Lett 2008;441:219–223. [PubMed: 18602754]


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