Active Voice: Exercises that Emphasize Motor Skill Factors Are Better for Improving Cognition in Children

By Flora Koutsandréou, M.A., Mirko Wegner, Ph.D. and Henning Budde, Ph.D.

Flora Koutsandréou, M.A. Mirko Wegner, Ph.D. Henning Budde, Ph.D.
Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Flora Koutsandréou, M.A., is a Ph.D. student and researcher at the Medical School Hamburg in Hamburg, Germany. Her research focuses on the effects of different physical activity regimes on cognition, brain activity and steroid hormones.

Mirko Wegner, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Sport Science, University of Bern, Switzerland. His research focus is on health benefits of physical activity and exercise and the underlying mechanisms. His research also deals with motivational processes supporting a change in exercise behavior and how motivation is linked to neurobiological mechanisms.

Henning Budde, Ph.D., is a professor at Medical School Hamburg, Germany, Reykjavik University, Iceland and at Lithuanian Sport University in Kaunas. His research interest is the field of exercise neuroscience. His research focus relates to the effects of exercise on the brain and how the brain induces movements. As a teacher, he is interested in how these findings can be implemented in school settings.

This commentary presents the authors’ views on the topic of a research article which they had published with their colleagues in the June 2016 issue of
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise® (MSSE).

Running with an increased heart rate or balancing on an unstable surface activates different physiological mechanisms. Both are examples for different exercise types: the first often described as cardiovascular or aerobic exercise and the latter as motor exercise or coordinative exercise. Different kinds of exercise like these are linked to health benefits and also may have varying degrees of influence on development of motor and cognitive functions. In 2008, in the journal Neuroscience Letters, we showed that acute motor-demanding exercise bouts led to better performance in concentration and attention tasks than with an exercise that lacked any specific coordinative demands, e.g., simple running. These results were first hints of a possible benefit of motor-demanding activities compared to cardiovascular activities when it comes to promoting cognitive functioning. However, because we only examined acute effects of a single exercise bout, we could not answer the question as to whether an improvement in motor fitness is associated with better cognitive functions in the long run and if one should be preferred to the other.

In our study, which was published in the June 2016 issue of MSSE, we reported on a controlled longitudinal trial that compared the effects of a 10-week cardiovascular versus motor exercise intervention program on cognitive performance in children using a working memory task. We included 71 participants, ages 9 to 10 years old, in our study. They were randomly assigned to a cardiovascular exercise (CE) or motor exercise training (ME) and exercised three times a week for 45 minutes per session. In the control group (CON), students participated in assisted homework sessions. The CE practiced at a mean intensity of 60-70 percent of HRmax. They enhanced their cardiovascular fitness through running and running-based games that did not include high motor demands. The ME completed a motor training routine, but at a lower intensity of 55-65 percent of HRmax. In this group, we focused on the improvement of fine and gross motor coordination through playful balance, bilateral coordination, hand-eye coordination and leg-arm coordination exercises. Some of the activities for ME also included spatial orientation and reaction to moving objects or persons. The ME exercise program was highly variable and designed to be constantly challenging for the participants to prevent automation. Children’s working memory was tested in the controls and the two exercise groups using the letter digit span task (LDS). The cognitive performance in both experimental groups improved after the intervention (ME: r = 0.86, CE: r = 0.58), compared to the CON. However, the ME revealed larger increases compared to the CE, and it was the sole group whose working memory performance at post-measurement was significantly larger compared to the CON.

We suggest high motor-demanding exercise, as well as cardiovascular exercise, for potentially improving children’s cognition. Motor-demanding activities, which do not need to be very intensive, may be a key alternative to improving cognitive functions in everyday life and academics. Activities like juggling and balancing easily can be implemented in schools without losing time for clothing changes at the gymnasium or without further sport facilities needed. Present research findings lend support for inclusion of activities with high motor-demand.