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Moving for a Better Mind

Darla Castelli is proving the link between fitness and brain function. Now she hopes to change attitudes about the importance of physical education. Watch a video.

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As school budgets diminish, physical education is often one of the first things to be reduced or cut. But what if P.E. classes weren’t simply about giving children an opportunity to move for a few minutes and relieve restlessness? What if physical health were directly tied to brain health and better grades, and somebody had the data to prove it?

As it turns out, someone from the College of Education does.

To reduce childhood obesity and help children realize their academic potential, Castelli recommends:

  • ensuring that children engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 60 minutes each day
  • providing time for structured physical activity as well as informal physical activity (play)
  • measuring the physical activity intensity
  • embedding physical activity in the overall school curriculum
  • allowing physical activity breaks at least every 60 minutes during the school day, even more for young children
  • providing highly trained physical education teachers who also serve as Physical Activity Leaders (PALs)
  • offering professional development training for educators and administrators
  • ensuring physical activity opportunities before and after school

“There’s substantial scientific proof that physical activity improves children’s physical health and offers health benefits that continue through adulthood,” says Darla Castelli, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education and a national expert on physical education.

“We’re amassing strong data that show a change in level of physical health and fitness leads to a change in cognitive health. Ideally, these findings will help bump physical education from the category of ‘optional’ to ‘absolutely essential’,” she adds.

[In fact, Castelli contributed to a report issued May 23 by the Institute of Medicine that says schools should play a key role in ensuring all students have the opportunity to engage in at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity each day. Harold W. Kohl III, Castelli’s colleague in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, was chair of the committee that wrote the report. Read a USA Today story about the report.]

Vigorous Playtime Leads to Better Performance

In one study Castelli and her research colleagues confirmed that even a single bout of intense physical activity offers cognitive benefits to children.

Collaborating with Charles Hillman from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Castelli investigated the effects on academic achievement of 20 minutes of walking versus 20 minutes of sitting. After walking and returning to within 10 percent of their resting heart rate, children in the study worked on several complex cognitive tasks.

Brain scans revealed that the kids who were active performed better.

Our research shows that the more fit children are, the better they tend to do in math and reading.”

“The more vigorous the physical activity and the more time spent above the target heart zone, the greater the gains in cognitive performance and the more accurately and quickly they completed cognitive exercises,” Castelli says. “This research suggests that it is very important to provide children with opportunities to be physically active during the school day.”

In a second study that compared dancing with a human dance instructor to dancing with the Xbox 360 Dance Central program, the findings showed that students who danced with the actual instructor expended more energy than those who used the game console.

What’s more, Castelli has also established a strong link between preadolescent children’s cognitive performance and health risk factors like high body mass index (BMI), high blood pressure, low aerobic capacity, elevated C-reactive protein (which signals inflammation) and arterial stiffness. As she suspected, the more risk factors a child had, the worse the cognitive performance.

Scientific Link Between Fitness and Brain Function

“We’ve provided the science that substantiates a link between physical activity, fitness and brain function,” Castelli says. “The next step one that we’re working on now is to find the underlying biological mechanisms that could explain why a child with a large waistline might have poorer academic responses than a child with a healthy BMI. The aim is to root out the metabolic processes that serve to promote attention and memory. If we can answer this question, we’ll be the among the first ever to do so.”

Darla Castelli, associate professor of kinesiology and health education

Darla Castelli 

As you might imagine, Castelli also is a prominent national leader in the push for physical fitness policy reform. For the past two decades she has traveled the nation introducing communities to physical activity intervention programs like FIT Kids, Fitness4Everyone and the Comprehensive School Physical Activity, a model endorsed by first lady Michelle Obama in her “Let’s Move! Active Schools” initiative.

“In the FIT Kids program we’ve found that children who don’t participate and who remain inactive are less likely to be at grade level in reading and math,” Castelli says. “Overweight and obese children also are more likely to experience social stigma and bullying and miss more school days, in addition to suffering physical health problems and possibly receiving lower grades.”

This spring she and Dr. Stephen Pont, medical director for the Texas Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity at Dell Children’s Medical Center, will be ramping up the fight against childhood obesity in Central Texas. They will launch Kinetic Kidz in Austin, which focuses on children who are inactive and have at least one other health risk factor, with an eye toward preventing the children from becoming obese.

Castelli is hopeful that her research on the link between physical fitness and cognitive health will spur communities and schools to press for reforms.

“It’s been proven that sitting and doing nothing is terrible for our bodies,” said Castelli. “That includes the brain. With the data we now have, I’m hopeful that parents and communities will speak up and demand that adequate amounts of high-quality physical education be part of every single school day. The fact is that the quality of a child’s academic work in all of the other classes depends on it.”

A version of this story originally appeared on the College of Education’s website.

Related item:

Getting Kids Active (Alcalde podcast with Harold Kohl)