Why don’t obese children instantly benefit from exercise?

Just before children in Naperville, Illinois sit down to take standardized tests, they are regularly taken for an invigorating walk outside.

The school district, which ranks among the top 40 in the United States, recognizes that exercise improves intellectual performance, says Charles HillmanNortheast Professor of Psychology and Physical Therapy, Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences, who is Associate Director of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health.

Hillman’s research found that children in general experience an increase in cognitive performance within an hour immediately following exercise. The exception to this rule is children who are obese, as 2020 research claims. In children ages 8 to 11, the Hillman Center found that those with a higher body mass index failed to achieve cognitive gain after 20 minutes of exercise on a treadmill.

“One of our long-term goals is to understand why there is this difference in how children react,” says Lauren RaineAssistant Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, Movement Sciences and Rehabilitation and the Department of Medical Sciences at the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health.

The short-term gains from exercise allow normal-weight children to perform better at multitasking, ignoring distractions in a classroom, and putting aside thoughts to apply later, such as when solving problems. mathematical problems.

What prevents obese children from reaping the immediate benefits of physical activity? Hillman’s team focuses on the role played by visceral adipose tissue, the layers of fat that envelop the body’s organs. A study 2018 by Hillman and Raine showed that obese children performed significantly worse on reading and math tests, and that the impairment was linked to visceral fat.

“It’s the fat that keeps your organs safe and warm,” says Hillman. “A certain amount of visceral fat is important. But when it exceeds a certain amount, it becomes dangerous.

Raine says inflammation may be crucial to understanding the link between visceral fat and cognitive performance. Does exercise inflame fatty tissue?

“We know that increased fat is linked to increased inflammation,” Raine says. “The idea is that because this ‘bad tissue’ surrounds the liver, it makes it much easier for these harmful inflammatory markers to travel through the body, including the brain.”

Although short-term exercise offers less cognitive gains to obese children, they benefit greatly from a long-term approach to physical fitness. A nine-month sustained exercise program resulted in higher than normal cognitive gains for obese children, as shown in the center’s 2017 study.

“Weight loss isn’t the goal because these kids are still growing,” Raine says. “Unless it’s an extremely aberrant case, most children [with obesity] should maintain their weight as they grow.

One of Raine’s goals is to provide an exercise program that creates instant results for obese children.

Hillman’s team does their work at the center’s headquarters on the sixth floor of Northeastern’s interdisciplinary science and engineering complex, where children of all body types undergo a variety of physical and cognitive tests in search of interrelationships .

Obese children face many challenges. Deriving metrics to support them in the short term can help inspire healthier long-term solutions.

“We know that obese kids have faced all kinds of barriers to being physically active,” Raine says. “If we can find that obese children need to walk for 40 minutes at 50% of their heart rate to get the same benefit, wouldn’t it be better to recommend that to teachers and doctors?” How can we actually give them something they can use? »

Hillman’s team began publishing findings on fitness and the brain in children in 2005. Researchers now hope to find a way to help a group of children achieve the same gains as their peers.

“I’d like to believe that intense exercise is good for everyone,” Raine says. “We just have to find the right starting point.”

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