Study: Children who are physically fit have enhanced language skills

Physically fit children are not only healthier, they have faster and more robust neuro-electrical brain responses while reading, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Illinois. The findings were published in the journal Brain and Cognition.

Although the research does not prove that higher fitness directly affects the changes in the electrical activity in the brain, it does offer a mechanism to explain why physical fitness associates closely with improved cognitive performance with a variety of tasks and language skills.

The difference between physically fit children and unfit children is that better language skills are obtained with children that are fit. The study also revealed no difference while the child was reading correct sentences or ones with errors.

“All we know is there is something different about higher- and lower-fit kids,” said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Charles Hillman, who led the research with graduate student Mark Scudder and psychology professor Kara Federmeier. “Now whether that difference is caused by fitness or maybe some third variable that (affects) both fitness and language processing, we don’t know yet.”

The research consisted of using electroencephalography (EEG), placing an electrode cap on the head of the participant to capture the electrical impulses in the brain. The data was transferred to a readout which resembles the seismic readings during an earthquake. These lines are associated with different tasks performed by the person.

Event-related potentials (ERPs) is what these line patterns are called and vary with each person being evaluated. There are two brain waveforms — the N400 is associated with processing the meaning of words while reading a sentence and the P600 is associated with the grammatical rules of a sentence. For the study, these two waveforms were evaluated.

“We focused on the N400 because it is associated with the processing of the meaning of a word. Previous reports have shown that greater N400 amplitude is seen in higher-ability readers,” Scudder said.

“And then we also looked at another ERP, the P600, which is associated with the grammatical rules of a sentence,” Federmeier added.

By evaluating these two waveforms, the findings showed that children who were more physically fit (taking in more oxygen while exercising) had higher N400 and P600 readings than the lesser-fit children while reading normal sentences, signifying they processed the information more quickly, and leading the researchers to believe [higher physical fitness levels] improves reading performance and language comprehension.

Compared to previous studies, “our study shows that the brain function of higher-fit kids is different, in the sense that they appear to be able to better allocate resources in the brain towards aspects of cognition that support reading comprehension,” Hillman said.

More research needs to be done, according to Hillman, but the new study does show a link between fitness and healthy brain function.

Previous studies with children and adults “have repeatedly demonstrated an effect of increases in either physical activity in one’s lifestyle or improvements in aerobic fitness, and the implications of those health behaviors for brain structure, brain function, and cognitive performance,” Hillman concluded.

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