Parents are always being encouraged their children to step away from their computers and get more active.
Now scientists have found that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is good for them as it boosts their brain power.
In the first study of its kind, researchers discovered this type of exercise – which involves short bursts of high-intensity activity followed by a brief low-intensity activity (known as HIIT) – was shown to increase cognitive skills more than moderate activity.
It can be especially beneficial for youngsters who have weaker heart health or genetic conditions that cause them mental challenges, say researchers.
‘Previous studies have suggested that long, sustained workout sessions, performed at a moderate intensity for 30 to 40 minutes, are most beneficial to learning and memory,’ says first author Dr David Moreau, at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
‘We wanted to see if short, intense bursts of exercise could also lead to meaningful cognitive improvements in children, and whether the effect of exercise on the brain is different depending on physical health and other individual characteristics.’
To answer these questions, Moreau and his team studied 305 children aged 7 to 13 years old to a randomised, placebo-controlled study.
The children were first given six tasks in two assessment categories: working (or short-term) memory and cognitive control – which refers to information processing and the mind’s ability to override impulses.
Both functions are noted for being strong predictors of academic and professional success.
After completing the tasks, the children were then randomly assigned to a HIIT or an active placebo group designed for enjoyment and motivation.
A complete workout session lasted for 10 minutes and was scheduled every morning on weekdays for six weeks, translating to five hours of actual exercise.
After the trial, the children completed the six cognitive tasks again. The researchers then compared their performance and found robust improvements both on their working memory and cognitive control.
Participants in the HIIT group showed larger improvements following the second round of tasks in comparison to those in the placebo group.
‘Our findings highlight the potency of short but intense physical workouts and suggest that aerobic exercise is not the sole means to improve brain power,’ Dr Moreau explains.
‘It is important to note that physical exercise generally is not a single solution for addressing cognitive deficits – in some cases, more targeted or individualised interventions might be required.
‘However, it remains that exercise is one of the most beneficial and non-invasive ways of enhancing cognition. Furthermore, we’ve shown that it needs not be time-consuming – as little as 5 hours of exercise can lead to sizeable benefits.’