Study Looks at an Aerobic Fitness Program to Improve Executive Functioning Among School Girls

Dr. Jennifer Gatz is a Public STEM education teacher of AP Biology and AP Research for Patchogue-Medford School District.

In short, what is the study about?

This study explored the effects of an aerobic fitness program to improve executive functioning involved in science learning of adolescent girls. Executive functioning is an umbrella term for higher order cognitive processes including working memory, inhibition, shifting, and the ability to plan, monitor and carry out goal directed actions. Skills associated with the capacity to perform well in science are highly dependent upon abilities that fall under executive function. The girls in the intervention group, ages 11-14, were at-risk for low self-esteem, sedentary lifestyle, and poor health outcomes. They participated in a program that combined physiology education and physical activities such as triathlon training and yoga three times per week for 20 weeks. The fitness component of the program culminated with a timed youth sprint triathlon (300-yard swim, 7-mile bike ride, and 1.5-mile run). After comparing the intervention and the control to baseline measures from a science assessment and parent survey that measured behavioral and cognition elements of executive function, the intervention group showed significant improvement in science achievement, and in the executive functions of inhibition, metacognition, and cognitive regulation. Inhibition is the ability to modulate actions, responses, emotions or behavior. Metacognition refers to the ability to initiate, plan, implement, and sustain strategies. Cognitive regulation is the ability to control and manage cognitive processes and solve problems. In our study, adolescent girls engaged in increased physical activity while setting goals and planning performance training for a youth triathlon. These efforts required them to organize actions to approach tasks efficiently, monitor performance, and evaluate new information while changing previously sedentary lifestyles. The results suggest participation in the triathlon training based intervention had significant effects on cognition and science performance, providing evidence for the importance of aerobic exercise and physical activity in improving specific executive function domains that support science learning.

What would be the most important take-home messages from the study?

Physical activity interventions with an aerobic training component may improve aspects of executive function, which may also be related to improvements in science achievement for middle school students. The relationship between executive function and science proficiency is supported by our data indicating increased self-regulation and problem solving that led to more efficient learning.  After school informal aerobic fitness programs can play a key role in engaging youth in science by providing opportunities to increase physical activity and improve health, which may facilitate executive functions related to goal setting and problem solving, particularly for young women were at-risk for low self-esteem, experiencing a sedentary lifestyle, and/or being overweight.

How are these findings important in practice?

Our work provides evidence that chronic physical activity can enhance cognitive control abilities including increased attention span, concentration, and improved memory. These improvements enable individuals to maintain the control necessary to inhibit automatic responses, adapt behavior to new demands, and maintain goal-directed behavior, ultimately leading to self-regulation for improving academic success. These cognitive functions also contribute to the critical thinking skills necessary for making scientific inferences. Consequently, these impacts have implications for narrowing the achievement gap in science and promoting STEM aspirations early in the lives of at-risk young women. Advances in the understanding of brain development and mechanisms of learning have substantial implications for science education. Since executive function develops with increasing age, physical activity may be particularly beneficial for a student’s ability to reason, monitor academic behaviors, and learn new concepts. This fitness intervention may be easily modified to scale up mechanisms for increasing the amount of physical activity during or outside of the school day. This might include a recommended minimum threshold for physical fitness training during the academic year, broader opportunities for triathlon training for middle school students, and more fitness activities geared towards holistic wellness to promote lifestyle shifts.

What other studies can be recommended to further an understanding/application of the findings?

Evaluation of executive function with appropriate age-based cognitive tests may provide a more reliable understanding of how chronic aerobic exercise interventions influence brain development and processing skills related to science achievement. Furthermore, different levels of physical fitness may have varying effects on cognitive and academic outcomes. Future research is needed to explore the impact of dose response as well as causal mechanisms, building upon research that suggests increased intensity and frequency of physical activity results in proportional increases in mental capabilities related to specific academic disciplines. Randomized trials using chronic aerobic exercise training in adolescents are needed with larger sample sizes and more specific measures associated with executive function to determine possible causes. Our research is a first step in contributing to increased understanding of the effects of physical fitness through the mechanisms of inhibition, metacognition, and cognitive regulation on science performance.

Link to the Primary Paper

Gatz, J., Kelly, A. M., & Clark, S. L. Improved Executive Function and Science Achievement for At-Risk Middle School Girls in an Aerobic Fitness Program. The Journal of Early Adolescence. doi:10.1177/0272431618770786

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