Researchers say that physical fitness in children can boost their memory and learning abilities, particularly when initially learning a task that is more challenging.

The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, was conducted by Lauren Raine and colleagues from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The study involved 48 children aged 9 and 10-years-old. On the first day, a test was carried out to measure the children’s aerobic fitness. This involved conducting a maximal oxygen consumption test, which was done while the children carried out physical activity on a treadmill.

On day 2, the children were required to memorize names and locations on two different maps, using two different learning strategies:

  • A study only strategy (SO) – the children could memorize the material by studying the information only
  • A test study strategy (TS) – the children were tested on the material as they studied.

On day 3 of the study, the children were required to complete the memory tests and were asked to refrain from any physical activity.

Two varieties of recall tests were administered for each map – a free recall test and a cued recall test. The researchers note that free recall tests were thought to require higher thinking abilities, particularly as free recall was not used throughout initial learning.

The order in which the maps were tested were counterbalanced, meaning that half of the children were first tested on a map learned in the SO condition, while the other half were first tested on a map learned in the TS condition.

From the aerobic fitness test, the researchers found that half of the children were in the top 30% of fitness for their age group, while the other half scored in the lowest 30%.

The results of the memory tests showed that the group who were in the top 30% for their level of fitness performed significantly better, compared with children who were in the lowest 30%.

The study authors explain:

The current findings indicate that interspersed testing and study as well as higher levels of aerobic fitness benefits learning and memory.

Interestingly, fitness differences interacted with initial learning strategy, with higher fit children outperforming lower fit children in recall of the regions learned using the study only condition, while higher and lower fit children performed similarly in recall of the regions learned using the test-study condition.”

The researchers note that these findings may suggest that higher levels of fitness have the greatest impact in the most challenging situations.

However, the researchers say that higher levels of fitness do not necessarily benefit children in all learning conditions:

“Participants performed best when recall was explicitly cued with the list of region names, as compared to the free recall condition.”

“However,” they add, “fitness did not interact with the cue condition. Therefore, it would appear that fitness does not assist children with learning in all challenging situations.”

The study authors say their findings suggest that initial learning strategy and fitness are key to improving learning in children, particularly those who struggle with certain subject matters or who may need extra educational assistance.

They will conduct further research on the manner in which these factors may impact a child’s neural process during learning.

They also want to see how neural networks linked to fitness and learning strategy – and their interaction – may impact short- and long-term retention, as well as the transfer of learned information and skills past initial learning.

They conclude:

The findings in the present study are also important from an educational policy perspective. Reducing or eliminating physical education in schools, as is often done in tight financial times, may not be the best way to ensure educational success among our young people.”

Research from Michigan State University last year revealed that just 20 minutes of exercise a day may be able to boost school performance of children with ADHD.