Can Exercise Improve Processing Speed?

If you want your child’s mind to move faster, get their body to move faster! One very simple strategy to improve processing speed in children is to get them to exercise. Vigorous aerobic exercise is a proven tool for improving processing speed in children. This simple intervention is underused, perhaps because its effects are modest and short-term. Yet exercise can also improve many complementary skills such as attention, working memory, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, academic knowledge, and executive functions that also impact long-term processing-speed skills. How exactly can exercise improve processing speed?

It appears that exercise has a direct impact on the neurochemistry of the brain. Exercise increases brain- derived neurotrophic factor, levels of synaptic proteins, and the availability of insulin-like growth factors, all of which contribute to cell development and neural plasticity. Exercise can also promote increased arousal and blood flow in the prefrontal cortex.

While researchers have come to understand that acute exercise is helpful, newer research indicates that ongoing exercise improves cognition through brain changes and improved cardiorespiratory functioning. There is some question about how effective sustained exercise is on specific cognitive skills such as verbal short-term memory and working memory. However, there is almost universal agreement that both long- and short-term exercise improve processing  speed. The greatest benefits of exercise for processing speed occur amongst the lowest performing groups, so exercise may have limited impact on the processing speed of fast processors. Studies also suggest that vigorous physical exercise is similar to stimulant medication, in that in that both affect the dopaminergic and noradrenergic systems

One theory suggests that the reason exercise improves processing speed is that fast processing was a life or death skill for our early ancestors who needed to go out and find food and be alert for dangers. High levels of physical activity enhanced the development of our cognitive abilities for survival. In the twenty-first century, a lack of movement and sedentary lifestyles may not be as nurturing to our brains as were the more physical lifestyles of the past. It may well be that human brains need more physical activity in order to continue growing.

Many studies have been conducted with adults that examine the relationship between exercise and improved cognitive skills. Most explore whether processing speed can be improved through exercising. One particularly interesting finding was from a study that combined physical exercise with a cognitive component in the form of dancing, using a dance video game that required remembering and following a sequence of movements. Use of the dance video games resulted in sustained improvement in processing speed as long as one year later as well as improvement in working memory. This combination type of exercise was more powerful than simple exercise alone.

There is a wealth of evidence that short-term and ongoing exercise can lead to improvement in processing-speed skills in children and adults. While the research suggests that exercise is often beneficial for other executive- functioning and cognitive skills, it is consistent in findings that processing-speed skills are always positively impacted, particularly for individuals with slow processing speed.

This is a simple intervention needs to be more widely used. The data suggest that the best type of exercise might be something that involves vigorous physical exercise in addition to also complex body movements. This is consistent with what John Ratey has found in his research on kids with ADHD that he describes in his book Spark. It suggests that  exercise such as dance, tennis, swimming, skating, soccer, hockey, bicycling, and other complex sports may be powerful and readily available interventions for slow processing speed.

Find games and activities and practical strategies that improve processing speed on our blog.



Featured image: Flickr user David Goehring

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