Exergaming as an Exciting Link to Promote Exercise in Youth

By Dan Lawler, PhD

In a recent study done at the University of British Columbia, Heidi Godman reports in her article, “Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills”, that regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in memory and learning.  Exercise helps memory and thinking through two different methods.  One, it stimulates the release of growth factors, chemicals in the brain that affect the growth of brain cells.  Those factors are involved with building new neurons and neural connections, including the vascular supply and tissues needed to support that neuronal tissue in the brain.  Secondly, exercise improves mood and sleep but also reduces stress and anxiety.  Many studies suggest that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (prefrontal cortex and the medial frontal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise.  Even more importantly, people who were engaged in regular exercise over six months have experienced an increase in volume of selected brain regions.

As schools are intimately involved with memory and learning, this research creates a significant implication for them to ensure that all kids are receiving regular physical activity.  The case for this is further strengthened by other recent research, by such people as Chuck Hillman of Illinois State University Urbana-Champagne, pointing to the interrelationship of exercise and proper brain development in youth.  Not only does it enhance cognition, but it builds resiliency in mood and increases focus.  In addition, research by Michelle Tine of Dartmouth is finding that exercise enhances cognition in students of poverty.

There are too many schools where opportunities to exercise are not part of the regular school day, but even when they are, there are those students who do more watching than participating.  Our experience with increasing students’ willingness to engage in exercise is significantly impacted by Exergaming being successfully integrated into exercise regiment.  What we find is that those students who were normally reluctant to engage in physical activity were immediately drawn to participate in Exergaming.

Increasing exercise through Exergaming has been particularly advantageous for students with behavioral issues.  One middle school in Colorado dropped by 37% the number of office referrals for students with behavioral and emotional issues.  Another Colorado middle school recently decreased the number of office referrals by 50% for major infractions and 34% for minor ones and increased attendance by 28% by using a program involving Exergaming for targeted students.

What we’re finding is increasing evidence that exercise is essential to proper brain development and is an intervention for behavioral issues and poverty.  Exergaming can be a significant tool to motivate students to reap the benefits of exercise.

The pandemic of physical inactivity is a serious threat to global public health accounting for ∼10% of all premature deaths from noncommunicable diseases. Despite evidence that such inactivity detrimentally affects brain health and aspects of cognition known as executive control (also called cognitive control) in older adult populations, this area remains understudied in children. This is concerning because childhood is characterized by extensive changes in brain structure, function, and connectivity. Thus, an active lifestyle during childhood may have protective effects on brain health across the lifespan, as is the case for physical health. However, the specific effects of physical activity (PA) on key cognitive processes and their neural underpinnings remain unknown.

Executive control, which consists of inhibition (resisting distractions or habits to maintain focus), working memory (mentally holding and manipulating information), and cognitive flexibility (multitasking), is vital to success in school, vocation, and life. Cross-sectional studies have demonstrated that aerobic fitness is positively related to executive control, with more fit children exhibiting superior attention, decision-making ability, and differential brain function compared with their lesser-fit peers.

Therefore, differences in fitness account for a portion of the variability observed in executive control and underlying brain function in preadolescent children.

…increased time spent engaging in PA improves both physical and brain health, which has broad public health implications for effective functioning across the lifespan.

The intervention [a 9 month after-school program of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity] 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.