Back to school can mean back to worry for parents concerned about academic performance. How do you get your kid’s brain working at its best? Take a “Tiger Mother” approach, with academic drills and strict expectations? A private tutor? Before breaking out the flash cards, maybe you should start instead by lacing up your sneakers and taking your kid out for a run.
Physical exercise is a powerful way to enhance brain function. Research with animals has long suggested that aerobic exercise, in particular, enhances blood flow throughout the brain. It also stimulates the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which encourages the growth of new brain cells and neural connections, especially in regions involved in learning and cognitive processing. Neuroscientists have only recently confirmed that exercise induces similar neuroplastic changes within the human brain, including those of children.
Brain scans have revealed that the hippocampus – a memory-intensive, medial-temporal lobe structure on each side of the brain – is larger in children with higher fitness levels than in less-active kids. The fit ones also performed better on relational-memory tests. Another neuroimaging study found that childhood exercise affects the dorsal striatum, a region of the basal ganglia associated with cognitive control, deep within each of the brain’s hemispheres. Children with lower fitness levels had smaller dorsal striata and were also less able to resist distraction than more active kids.
These results support evidence that increases in physical activity lead to increases in overall academic achievement. Indeed, significant improvements in math, reading and spelling have been shown across a range of school grades with as little as a 90-minute increase in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week.
Eating the right food also aids learning-related brain plasticity. Consider the omega-3 and -6 families of fatty acids. Such “good fat” in foods such as fish, eggs, seeds and nuts are thought to be particularly important for the growth and maintenance of neurons and their synaptic connections. Foods containing high levels of antioxidants, such as blueberries, also help protect neurons from the damage of oxidative stress. Boosting the amount of fish, nuts, berries and other fruits and vegetables your child eats is therefore a relatively simple way to optimize and protect their developing brain.
Eating properly can also boost your child’s ability to resist distraction, avoid emotional outbursts and otherwise regulate behaviour. The ability to exert such acts of self-control has been linked to fluctuations in blood glucose, the fuel that, along with oxygen, supports metabolic activity in neurons. Making sure your child eats breakfast and has small, frequent meals throughout the day can help to maintain glucose levels. Steering them away from sugar-laden food will also help them avoid the subsequent rush of insulin that ultimately causes blood-glucose levels to plummet. This may be particularly important in classroom settings, given evidence that low-glucose-related failures of self-control are most likely to occur following sustained periods of minding one’s behaviour.
Getting a good night’s sleep provides another boost for a young person’s brain. While they snooze, research suggests their brains are busy repeating patterns of activation between the hippocampus and other cortical regions. This oscillating activity seems to modify the strength of synaptic connections to make memory traces more durable. The result, among other things, is enhanced learning and memory from the previous day’s events. Studies link insufficient or disturbed sleep with children having problems at school.
With wide-ranging, often controversial opinions about how to raise a successful kid, it is nice to find consensus on at least a few brain-boosting fronts. How can your child do better in school? Exercise more. Eat right. Sleep well. Good advice for parents, too.
Mark Fenske, co-author of The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success, is a neuroscientist and associate professor at the University of Guelph.