The Teen Brain

By Sarah Raskin,  Professor of Neuroscience at Trinity College

I am sure you are already convinced that moderate sports and exercise are good for your child’s health.  If you are like me, I always thought, okay they should do a sport to have fun, learn some great lessons and keep their bodies healthy, but that’s separate from the things we do to help them succeed in school.  Music lessons help with math, right, but sports?  But it turns out, exercise may also be good for your child’s brain.

The adolescent years are a time of big changes in the brain.  So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that exercise also changes the brain.  Teens who do aerobic exercise show increases in some parts of the brain compared to those that are sedentary.  These are the parts of the brain associated with learning and memory.  Several studies with adolescence have shown that moderate aerobic exercise leads to better ability to learn new information and to stay focused in school.

These findings have also been applied to younger children.  Children that are physically fit show better academic performance, better self-control, and larger brain structures. And one study was even able to predict which kids would perform better on a memory task in one year based on their current fitness level.  So think about this-if your child’s brain doesn’t get that boost early on, it may never fully catch up.

Here’s a fun one.  Memory improves even more if you are exercising while learning—this might be a hard sell for our overworked teachers to implement, but you could try it at home, walking on a treadmill or using a stationary bike.

So if your child plays a sport, next time you feel exhausted thinking about the week’s schedule, or putting out cash for new running shoes or cleats, remember helping your teen get exercise is like helping your child with homework!  If your child does not play a sport, encourage her/him to start slow and think of an hour of exercise as an hour of getting homework done (and wear that helmet if bicycling).

And don’t forget your child’s brain also needs a healthy breakfast and even teens need at least 8 ½ hours of sleep!