Purpose: the neurocognitive benefits of an active lifestyle in childhood have public health and educational implications, especially as children in today's technological society are becoming increasingly overweight, unhealthy, and unfit. Human and animal studies show that aerobic exercise affects both prefrontal executive control and hippocampal function. This investigation attempts to bridge these research threads by using a cognitive task to examine the relationship between aerobic fitness and executive control of relational memory in preadolescent 9- and 10-yr-old children.
Method: higher-fit and lower-fit children studied faces and houses under individual item (i.e., nonrelational) and relational encoding conditions, and the children were subsequently tested with recognition memory trials consisting of previously studied pairs and pairs of completely new items. With each subject participating in both item and relational encoding conditions, and with recognition test trials amenable to the use of both item and relational memory cues, this task afforded a challenge to the flexible use of memory, specifically in the use of appropriate encoding and retrieval strategies. Hence, the task provided a test of both executive control and memory processes.
Results: lower-fit children showed poorer recognition memory performance than higher-fit children, selectively in the relational encoding condition. No association between aerobic fitness and recognition performance was found for faces and houses studied as individual items (i.e., nonrelationally).
Conclusions: the findings implicate childhood aerobic fitness as a factor in the ability to use effective encoding and retrieval executive control processes for relational memory material and, possibly, in the strategic engagement of prefrontal- and hippocampal-dependent systems.