Regular Physical Activity Linked to More ‘Fit’ Preteen Brains

Summary: Physical exercise was associated with more efficiently organized, robust, and flexible networks in the preteen brain.

Source: Boston Children’s Hospital

We know exercise has many health benefits. A new study from Boston Children’s Hospital adds another benefit: Physical activity appears to help organize children’s developing brains.

The study, led by Dr. Caterina Stamoulis, analyzed brain imaging data from nearly 6,000 9- and 10-year-olds. It found that physical activity was associated with more efficiently organized, robust, and flexible brain networks. The more physical activity, the more “fit” the brain.

“It didn’t matter what kind of physical activity children were involved in,” says Dr. Stamoulis, who directs the Computational Neuroscience Laboratory at Boston Children’s. “It only mattered that they were active.”

Crunching the data

Dr. Stamoulis and her trainees, Skylar Brooks and Sean Parks, tapped brain imaging data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, a long-running study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data to estimate the strength and organizational properties of the children’s brain circuits. These measures determine how efficiently the brain functions and how readily it can adapt to changes in the environment.

“The preteen years are a very important time in brain development,” notes Dr. Stamoulis. “They are associated with a lot of changes in the brain’s functional circuits, particularly those supporting higher-level thought processes. Unhealthy changes in these areas can lead to risky behaviors and long-lasting deficits in the skills needed for learning and reasoning.”

The team combined these data with information on the children’s physical activity and sports involvement, supplied by the families, as well as body mass index (BMI). Finally, they adjusted the data for other factors that might affect brain development, such as being born before 40 weeks of gestation, puberty status, sex, and family income.

Healthy brain networks

Being active multiple times per week for at least 60 minutes had a widespread positive effect on brain circuitry. Children who engaged in high levels of physical activity showed beneficial effects on brain circuits in multiple areas essential to learning and reasoning. These included attention, sensory and motor processing, memory, decision making, and executive control (the ability to plan, coordinate, and control actions and behaviors).

This is a cartoon of children enjoying sports and ballet
A study of nearly 6,000 9- and 10-year-olds suggests that physical activity — in any form — helps children’s brains organize more efficiently. Credit: David Chrisom, Boston Children’s

In contrast, increased BMI tended to have detrimental effects on the same brain circuitry. However, regular physical activity reduced these negative effects. “We think physical activity affects brain organization directly, but also indirectly by reducing BMI,” Dr. Stamoulis says.

Analyzing brain effects

In the analyses, the brain was represented mathematically as a network of “nodes”: a set of brain regions linked by connections of varying strength. Physical activity had two kinds of positive effects: on the efficiency and robustness of the network as a whole, and on more local properties such as the number and clustering of node connections.

“Highly connected local brain networks that communicate with each other through relatively few but strong long-range connections optimizes information processing and transmission in the brain,” explains Dr. Stamoulis.

“In preteens, a number of brain functions are still developing, and they can be altered by a number of risk factors. Our results suggest that physical activity has a positive protective effect across brain regions.”

Funding: The study was supported by the National Science Foundation’s Harnessing the Data Revolution and BRAIN Initiative. The researchers developed advanced computing techniques to analyze the data with support from Harvard Medical School’s High Performance Computing Cluster.

About this exercise and neuroscience research news

Source: Boston Children’s Hospital
Contact: Press Office – Boston Children’s Hospital
Image: The image is credited to David Chrisom, Boston Children’s

Original Research: Open access.
Widespread Positive Direct and Indirect Effects of Regular Physical Activity on the Developing Functional Connectome in Early Adolescence” by Caterina Stamoulis, et al. Cerebral Cortex


Widespread Positive Direct and Indirect Effects of Regular Physical Activity on the Developing Functional Connectome in Early Adolescence

Adolescence is a period of profound but incompletely understood changes in the brain’s neural circuitry (the connectome), which is vulnerable to risk factors such as unhealthy weight, but may be protected by positive factors such as regular physical activity. In 5955 children (median age = 120 months; 50.86% females) from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) cohort, we investigated direct and indirect (through impact on body mass index [BMI]) effects of physical activity on resting-state networks, the backbone of the functional connectome that ubiquitously affects cognitive function.

We estimated significant positive effects of regular physical activity on network connectivity, efficiency, robustness and stability (P ≤ 0.01), and on local topologies of attention, somatomotor, frontoparietal, limbic, and default-mode networks (P < 0.05), which support extensive processes, from memory and executive control to emotional processing. In contrast, we estimated widespread negative BMI effects in the same network properties and brain regions (P < 0.05).

Additional mediation analyses suggested that physical activity could also modulate network topologies leading to better control of food intake, appetite and satiety, and ultimately lower BMI.

Thus, regular physical activity may have extensive positive effects on the development of the functional connectome, and may be critical for improving the detrimental effects of unhealthy weight on cognitive health.

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