Objective: To assess the effect of a physical activity (PA) intervention on brain and behavioral indices of executive control in preadolescent children.
Methods: Two hundred twenty-one children (7-9 years) were randomly assigned to a 9-month afterschool PA program or a wait-list control. In addition to changes in fitness (maximal oxygen consumption), electrical activity in the brain (P3-ERP) and behavioral measures (accuracy, reaction time) of executive control were collected by using tasks that modulated attentional inhibition and cognitive flexibility.
Results: Fitness improved more among intervention participants from pretest to posttest compared with the wait-list control (1.3 mL/kg per minute, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.3 to 2.4; d = 0.34 for group difference in pre-to-post change score). Intervention participants exhibited greater improvements from pretest to posttest in inhibition (3.2%, 95% CI: 0.0 to 6.5; d = 0.27) and cognitive flexibility (4.8%, 95% CI: 1.1 to 8.4; d = 0.35 for group difference in pre-to-post change score) compared with control. Only the intervention group increased attentional resources from pretest to posttest during tasks requiring increased inhibition (1.4 µV, 95% CI: 0.3 to 2.6; d = 0.34) and cognitive flexibility (1.5 µV, 95% CI: 0.6 to 2.5; d = 0.43). Finally, improvements in brain function on the inhibition task (r = 0.22) and performance on the flexibility task correlated with intervention attendance (r = 0.24).
Conclusions: The intervention enhanced cognitive performance and brain function during tasks requiring greater executive control. These findings demonstrate a causal effect of a PA program on executive control, and provide support for PA for improving childhood cognition and brain health.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT01334359.
Keywords: aerobic fitness; cognition; physical activity; randomized controlled trial.
Copyright © 2014 by the American Academy of Pediatrics.