Can Exercise Improve Processing Speed?


Does your child seem bright but take a long time to understand things? Does information go in one ear and right out the other? It’s possible that they struggle with slow processing speed. Processing speed is how long it takes your brain to take information in and do something with that information. This relates to classroom success, social connections, and overall ability to learn. Fortunately, slow processing speeds don’t mean that your child is unintelligent. There are plenty of great ways to support growth in 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. 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 directly impacts the neurochemistry of the brain. Exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factors, 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. Why does this matter? These keep the brain healthy and active. In the same way that exercising your muscles is a lifetime investment, exercising your brain keeps it functioning better for longer. Kids who struggle with brain-based skills benefit even more from brain and body exercises, and these effects can follow them throughout their lives. 

Reacting to a softball and catching it takes some quick-thinking skills.

Researchers have come to understand that acute exercise is helpful across many thinking skills. Newer research further explores this, indicating that ongoing exercise improves cognition through brain changes. There is almost universal agreement that both long and short term exercise improve processing speed. This study also suggests that vigorous physical exercise has a similar impact to stimulant medication on the brain. In fact, the lowest performing groups gain the greatest benefits of exercise for the brain. 

One theory suggests that the reason exercise improves processing speed is that fast processing was an essential skill for our early ancestors who needed to go out and find food and be alert for danger. High levels of physical activity coincides with the development of our cognitive abilities for survival. In the twenty-first century, our safer, sedentary lifestyles may not be as nurturing to our brains as the more physical lifestyles of the past. It may well be that human brains need supplemental physical activity in order to grow.

This wealth of evidence strongly supports that regular exercise can lead to improvement in processing speed skills. 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 simple intervention has benefits for the mind and body beyond processing speed too. The data suggest that the best type of exercise might be something vigorous with 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 exercises such as dance, tennis, swimming, skating, soccer, hockey, bicycling, and other complex sports may be powerful and readily available interventions for slow processing speed.

It is important for a growing child to have a balanced Play Diet structured to their unique individual needs. Some children benefit from more active play, and some from more digital play. Having a healthy dose of all types of play supports children in their development into well-adjusted, successful adults. 

To support enhancing your child’s processing speed through both exercise and digital play, find games and activities that help to improve this skill on our site. Additionally, our site hosts a number of unique, digital play-based courses that help kids strengthen their executive functioning skills. Skills such as time management and focus could help your child with slow processing speed take in information more readily. 


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