a girl running in a parkWant to learn better without studying more? Try aerobic exercise like running or riding a bike. Research from the University of Illinois suggests that aerobically fit children have stronger white matter connections in brain areas supporting attention and memory. The researchers analyzed the brain’s white matter tracts. White matter is like a network of cables that traverses the brain, moving information from one brain region to another. Children with a higher level of aerobic fitness had denser white matter. The findings support the hypothesis that aerobic exercise improves cognitive function.

The researchers examined 24 children aged 9- and 10-years-old. Using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), sometimes called a diffusion MRI, the research team examined five of the brain’s white-matter tracts. DTI measures the diffusion of water through brain tissue—less diffusion indicates more compact white matter. The researchers controlled for social and economic status, puberty, intelligence, and diagnosis of learning disabilities like ADHD.

There were significant fitness-related differences in the integrity of white matter tracts in several parts of the brain, including the:

  • Corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s left and right hemispheres.

  • Superior longitudinal fasciculus, which connects the frontal and parietal lobes.

  • Superior corona radiata, which connects the cerebral cortex and the brain stem.

Each of these brain regions plays a role in attention and memory.

“Previous studies in our lab have reported a relationship between fitness and white-matter integrity in older adults. Therefore, it appears that fitness may have beneficial effects on white matter throughout the lifespan,” stated Arthur Krame, co-author of the study and psychology professor at the Beckman Institute at Illinois.

The research team is continuing their research by investigating whether starting and maintaining a new physical fitness program can improve white matter integrity.

This research is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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