Earlier, we discussed a study that found that higher rates of obesity among preschoolers was linked to reduced cognitive ability. Does the relationship work in the other direction?
A meta-analysis of studies, published last year, sheds additional light on this topic. “Early childhood is the most critical and rapid period of complete and healthy motor and cognitive development in human life,” note the researchers behind “Effects of Physical Activity on Motor Skills and Cognitive Development in Early Childhood: A Systematic Review.” Particularly at present, when more and more young children turn to video screens and smartphones rather than physical play for entertainment, the importance of understanding the relationship between preschoolers’ physical activity and their readiness to learn cannot be overstated.
The researchers reviewed five studies examining the connection between physical activity and cognitive abilities. Possibly because preschoolers’ brains have a greater degree of plasticity and respond more to chemicals that are activated by physical activity, and/or possibly because physical activities improves motor skills which have similar underlying processes to cognitive skills (such as sequencing, monitoring and planning), four of the five studies found a positive correlation between levels of physical activity and measures of cognitive ability, including executive function, language, literacy, and academic success overall. In fact, two of the studies found that the highest effects were seen when physical activity was relevant to the learning activity, compared with a sedentary style of teaching. While the underlying mechanisms are still not completely understood, another research team now is planning a 15-year longitudinal study of 500 preschoolers to measure the longer-term impacts of physical activity on cognitive abilities.