video gaming and learning, video games and brain development, learning and exercise, boys and video games, boys and learning, boys and exercise

Connection Between Exercise and Learning

Brain Research on Learning, Exercise, and Video Games!

Please welcome my guest author, Sarah Clachar, who has some alarming news about children’s brain development and video gaming. On the positive side, exercise and learning are also related. After reading her article, I started carting around my son’s 500+ page Percy Jackson book and little baggies full of legos in my purse for him to use instead of his iPod Touch while we wait at restaurants.

What do you do to keep your kids off screens and active? PLEASE share! We could all use more ideas, especially me! Thank you!


What Goes Best With A Good Book?

What’s the best thing you could have with a good book?
A banana muffin? Nope.
A cup of tea? Nope.
A nice comfy chair? A roaring fireplace? A quiet evening? All good things . . .

But Nope. Nope. And nope.

It’s exercise.

Okay, I’ll clarify – I didn’t mean exactly together at the same time. That could be a challenge.

But along with helping develop your child’s love of reading and good books, the best thing you can give your children is a love of movement. In fact, they go better together.

Because here’s the overlooked secret about exercising – it’s one of the best brain foods around.

And keep reading, because at the end, I’ll explain why we even run a huge danger by favoring one over the other . . .

Dr. Catherine Davis and her team have been studying this working with overweight children in Georgia. Every day after school, she gathered her research team of 7- to 11-year-olds and exercised for 40 minutes after school.

In just three months, here’s what she found . . .

  • The children’s intelligence scores went up an average of 3.8 points.
  • The children’s math scores improved significantly – without any additional math tutoring.

These results have been supported in other research . . .

  • Researchers at the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have found that simply by walking on the treadmill, participants’ attention span increased.
  • Researchers at the Montreal Heart Institute found that 4 months of interval exercise (30 seconds of sprinting followed by 30 seconds jogging/walking) simply made middle age participants smarter on cognitive tests.
  • Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles have shown rats who exercise grow more neurons and longer neurons in their brains more quickly. And this worked for rats with neural damage as well. It seems exercise may even help us grow bigger brains.

Okay, so now you can see why exercise and a love of books goes together so well. Now let’s get into why exercise makes such a big difference when it comes to brain power . . .

Why Exercise Builds Brain “Muscle”

When Dr. Davis’ team took brain MRI’s of the children participating in her program, she found something very interesting.

It looked like exercise stimulated increased activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the part of the brain associated with complex thinking, decision-making and correct social behavior.

In other words, exercise was giving children a very fundamental tool for becoming scholars – the ability to structure themselves and think.

And that’s not all –

In another study, researchers measured the volume of the hippocampus of children and compared the volumes to their fitness levels. It turned out the children who were the most fit also had larger hippocampal regions in their brains – on average about 12% bigger.

The hippocampus plays a huge part in the process of making memories and in integrated learning. It helps us integrate what we’ve learned into our brain’s mighty processing centers so we can apply it when we need it.

Exercise helps our children integrate information and remember what they’ve learned.

What’s Shrinking Our Children’s Brains

The complementary role exercise plays to reading and healthy brain development is brought out in even sharper contrast by another phenomenon plaguing our children . . .

Over the past few months in my household we’ve developed a just-about-down-to-nothing policy on video games for my son. It’s not about violence or aggressiveness issues (although research bears out this is a problem with them too.)

It’s simply about helping him learn to focus, think and manage life.

We found whenever he played video games, he was unable to do his chores properly or focus on a conversation.

Several years ago, a team of researchers in Japan set out to demonstrate that educational video games could help with children’s brain development. They were hoping to gain research dollars from their study.

They had children read aloud, do math problems and play educational video games.

What they found shocked them –

It didn’t matter what kind of focus the games had, video games barely engaged the frontal lobe of the brain, the part associated with learning, emotional control and memory. They could see the marked difference between the video game-playing brains’ activity and the brains engaged with reading or math.

Truly disturbed by what he witnessed, the lead researcher, Ryuta Kwashima, has gone on to speak at parenting and educational conferences urging parents to pay attention to the debilitating effects of video games.

As Kwashima and other neurologists have pointed out – when you don’t stimulate parts of the brain, it doesn’t develop. Kind of like the old exercise adage – use it or lose it.

With exercise and reading our children are using parts of the brain critical for analytical thinking, problem-solving and self-control. These two activities seem to complement each other.

But as our children ditch books and jump rope for computer games, they’re losing out double-time.

But here’s some insights the research hasn’t quite touched yet . . .

Beyond Research And Onto Mom’s Intuition

All this research supports my belief in the power of moving for not just building big muscles but our health overall – mentally and emotionally.

But let’s cut through the science-speak . . . and allow me to take this one step further . . .

Our bodies are complex – beautifully sophisticated!

Unfortunately more and more, we’re only using a small part of it – our fingers to tap at keyboards and our eyes shift back and forth. Our brain processes the information it gets during these activities. But it’s only being used at a fraction of its capacity.

When I’m not working at my computer, I’m working with my children on our farm (we grow most of our food), practicing kickboxing and jiu jitsu together or we’re exploring the hills on mountain bike.

And I know in every fiber of my being that I’m using whole dimensions of my brain when I observe, react, coordinate, balance and execute that can’t be touched by the simple act of reading.

I love reading – I’m a bookworm through and through. But I’ve come to value not only the benefits exercise brings to my consumption of books . . . but the balance it brings.

Books open us to new ideas, perspectives and give us just plain old facts, essential for getting through life.

But getting outside, moving and doing helps us apply, evaluate and tweak what we learn in books. It helps return to reading with our own perspective and insights that makes it even a richer experience.

And as this research underscores, it helps us process information faster and more effectively as readers.

So let’s get down to a mom’s intuition . . .

Just like you’ve inspired your children to love reading, make the skill of reading stronger and make them stronger. Next time you help them choose a good book . . . make sure you go outside and play a game of tag with them too.

video gaming and learning, video games and brain development, learning and exercise, boys and video games, boys and learning, boys and exercise

Sarah and her husband Cassius have been making fitness part of their family life since their first child was in utero. Now they work together to inspire and help other families do the same. If you’re ready to make family fitness part of your family life, come join us and sign up for our FREE family fitness planning e-course at

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. Catherine

    Wow, Mia! Thanks so much for enlightening us. My son has a hard time concentrating in class, I have an idea now what to do.
    Catherine recently posted…Hoover DamMy Profile

    • Hi Catherine,
      I can’t take credit for this great guest post but I am so happy that you find it helpful!
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Connection Between Exercise and LearningMy Profile

    • Catherine, it’s been so noticeable to us with our son. We can trace days when he has a hard time focusing back to time spent playing a video game. And running around does just the opposite!

      • Hi Sarah,
        It’s funny because I used to think that my son would have trouble focusing if he was too tired from running around.

        I also noticed from years past that my oldest would have trouble focusing after school because her first grade year was so chaotic and disorganized. She would totally fall apart at her piano lesson. Her piano teacher would note that the two other kids in her class were the same way at their piano lesson (we all had the same teacher) because there was no routine or discipline in the classroom.

        My son plays a lot of video games and I don’t notice a lack of focus post gaming but I am going to pay closer attention. His ability to focus is directly related to his interest in what he’s doing.
        Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Best TV Shows for Tweens Approved by MomsMy Profile

    • Catherine, it was amazing to us to start seeing the pattern – If he had a hard time focusing, we could trace it back to playing a video game. Vs. running around made it easier for him to focus!
      Sarah recently posted…Snowshoe And Enjoy The Deep Snow!My Profile

      • Hi Sarah,
        I do notice that my kids eat more and sleep better when they have lots of outdoor running around time. It totally makes sense that they can focus better as well. Our P.E. teacher comes early on MCAS testing days to let the kids have a half hour to exercise before they take the test to optimize their concentration. He said the research indicated the exercise/learning connection.
        Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Best TV Shows for Tweens Approved by MomsMy Profile

  2. I want to do more active activities with my kids, but I am good with screen time. It’s not unusual for my kids to go days without seeing a screen. We only have an OLD tv (not as fun to watch, and – since it isn’t digital – no channels!), and they don’t know how to work the computer on their own. Other electronics are usually kept out of sight. I’m sure the regulation will get harder as the kids get older, though!
    maryanne recently posted…Reading with Babies and Board Books for BabiesMy Profile

  3. Balance and moderation in all things is the key!

  4. Wonderful post! For many of the same reasons, I encourage learning to play a musical instrument. There is a physical motion connected to to producing a sound. The same is true even if you are singing, or reading aloud. Clapping games, acting out stories or putting on puppet shows are things even developmentally disabled children can manage, one way or another. And ideally, dancing, moving to music, and just plain active play, as you emphasize, are invaluable to growing children. Isn’t there research that says exercise has similar benefits for older people? 😉
    Susan Call Hutchison ( recently posted…On the First, Warm, Sunny Day…My Profile

  5. Great post! It is harder when kids get old, especially when a lot homework and projects are on iPAD now. Getting enough off-screen time is a better way to help reduce screen time.
    iGameMom recently posted…App Went Free: Toca TailorMy Profile

    • Hi i-Game Mom,
      It’s such a struggle for us to keep off screens so this was a great message for me personally. And we are going to try to go screen free for a week coming up as well. That won’t be easy though!
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Connection Between Exercise and LearningMy Profile

      • Would be very interested in how the screen free week go. I am not sure we can do that – with me writing posts daily, my son’s math daily practice and reading on iPAD. Maybe able to to manage without, … need be creative though. Will you post about your week of screen free?
        iGameMom recently posted…FREE App: Building Fun with LEGO® App4+My Profile

        • Hi iGameMom,
          We are the same. I think we will approach Screen Free week with elimination of dumb screens and trying for substitutes for entertainment purposes. I might have to bribe my kids to motivate them too.

          Oh, the pressure of posting on our week of screen free. I’ll do at least one day. I’m not sure how many days we can handle without cracking. Good idea. I definitely won’t be screen free myself. As a blogger, it’s impossible.
          Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Best TV Shows for Tweens Approved by MomsMy Profile

  6. Ann

    I know I set a bad example with screen time and my kids get a little too much. These facts are scary but they make total sense!
    Ann recently posted…Cave PaintingMy Profile

  7. Completely agree with this post. I love it. My kids do get some screen time, but we spend the majority of our day playing and exploring outside.
    Allison recently posted…Insect Sensory BinMy Profile

  8. Ann, it’s certainly something I’ve taken note of as well as I did the research. I’m a writer and in fact, I’ve found that when I take frequent breaks to move and do very hands-on activities (like housework or farm chores) it helps me return to the computer (and screen) with more concentration and more creative juice.

    Allison and iGameMom, I agree especially with school requirements it gets even harder. After years of resisting Facebook, we had to sign my daughter up for it because her soccer coach was using it for the team. Balancing it off is perhaps the best antidote!
    Sarah recently posted…Snowshoe And Enjoy The Deep Snow!My Profile

    • Hi Sarah,
      I like to take dog walk breaks from computer time too. It helps sort out the brain. You have convinced us all that exercise is so important and reducing screen time for more exercise is a win/win for kids. Thank you for your great post. It’s exactly the motivation we need as we approach Screen Free Week (with trepidation!).
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Best TV Shows for Tweens Approved by MomsMy Profile

  9. Zara

    Thanks for posting this! I think it’s great that there’s a mention of both parental instinct and the scientific research! So often our hurried lives and all the “shoulds” of modern society have us doubting what feels right as a parent. Hopefully all those well-intentioned parents who want their child to be tech-savvy, but much prefer the fun and connection of activity can turn their list of “shoulds” upside-down!
    Zara recently posted…Mar 25, Healthy Peanut Butter Cups (or Bars, or Eggs) RecipeMy Profile

    • Hi Zara,
      Sarah’s article is great and a timely reminder to really watch the ratio of screen time to exercise. I guess all things in moderation, especially screen time given our high tech society. Now that the weather has turned nicer, it’s a great reminder to get outside, adults and kids. I know that is my takeaway. And also to really give Screen Free Week coming up a try. It might turn out to be easier that we think and a way to break old, bad habits. I know I could improve our screen time consumption.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Best TV Shows for Tweens Approved by MomsMy Profile

    • Zara, you hit on a point that’s hidden in this. Part of the danger of information and stimulation overload is that we lose our own instincts and observations. I’m a die-hard reader – I love books! – but I’ve learned that even in reading we can lose our ability to simply observe and think. It took me a long time to start to trust my own opinions and not always feel I need a reference to back it up and give it authority. When you open up space in your mind, it’s amazing what percolates up! As parents, this is especially important since the shoulds can overwhelm and confuse you!
      Sarah recently posted…Snowshoe And Enjoy The Deep Snow!My Profile

  10. Jeanette Nyberg

    Wowza. I guess I wasn’t aware that video games were actually THAT bad for kids. It makes sense, though. It’s such an easy pacifier to thrust a phone in front of a kid when you’re out and they’re bored, instead of encouraging them to figure out something to do. I think I’ll stock the car with journals, sketchbooks, mazes, etc. from now on.
    Jeanette Nyberg recently posted…Arts Advocacy Day is Upon us!My Profile

    • Hi Jeanette,
      Guilty too! My husband, in disgust one day, made up a game at a restaurant called “What Changed?” He made my little son turn off his electronics (probably iPod touch). One person closes their eyes, the other person changes something on the table. It can be a really subtle change like taking a sip of water to lower the water in a glass or turning a ketchup bottle by a quarter of a turn. It actually is a really fun game that my kids will play with dad while we wait.
      Pragmatic Mom recently posted…Best TV Shows for Tweens Approved by MomsMy Profile

  11. This is a very insightful post. I’m now sharing your blog to my mom friends as I comment on this article.
    Mike Huiwitz recently posted…The Ex Back ExpertsMy Profile

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