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The Impact of Exercise on Your Child's Brain

Matt Skeffington

Matt’s primary role at Dynamic Strength and Conditioning is to make sure that our coaches and clients are consistently improving, all while operatin...

Matt’s primary role at Dynamic Strength and Conditioning is to make sure that our coaches and clients are consistently improving, all while operatin...

Nov 17 7 minutes read

The benefits of exercise for children are both well known and widespread.

By following an exercise routine, playing a sport or regularly playing outside, your child will see improvements in both health and sport performance.

The health implications include improvements in a variety of areas like:

  • Weight loss and management
  • Disease prevention like type 2 diabetes
  • Heart protection
  • Immune function
  • Injury prevention

Exercise also has a large impact on athletic performance by improving areas like:

  • Speed & agility
  • Strength
  • Power
  • Endurance
  • Coordination 
  • Reaction

These improvements are well documented through countless research articles on exercise and it's impact on our body.

One area that is gaining much attention over the past few years is exercise's impact on developing brains. 

Yes, exercise plays a crucial role in the health and development of your child's brain, knowledge, learning, memory, stress and happiness. 

I personally have been fascinated by this. 

Exercise, the activity we thought mainly impacted areas like our weight and the strength of our bones, muscles, tendons and heart, has an equally or greater effect on our minds and it's development and function. 

Today's blog comes from a variety of research and the work of Harvard Medical School's Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, John J. Ratey, M.D. and his book Spark -- The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. 

Let's get into the impact exercise has on your child's developing brain. 

Enjoy :) 


Think of your child's brain like the muscles on your arms and legs. 

It grows and sharpens with activity and withers away with inactivity. 

It is made up of branch-like  neuron connections that work to communicate with each other. 

These connections are the basis for everything we think and do and can be strengthened and grown with exercise. 

You heard that right. 

Exercise, especially aerobic exercise helps your child's developing brain grow stronger and smarter. 

When you exercise, your body releases special proteins that enter your bloodstream and your brain. 

To learn and retain something new like a new word or idea, your brain cells need to bind together and new brain signals are created

These proteins create an environment within your child's brain that not only makes it easier for them to learn but also makes them more eager to do so. 

In fact, research has shown that only 2 weeks of exercise can increase these proteins by 35%.

Simply put, exercise makes it easier for your child to learn. 

This is why some schools including America's fittest and smartest school, Naperville Central High School (finished 1st in Science in the world through standardized testing) start their school day with 30-60 minutes of rigorous exercise to prime their student's minds to learn. 

Stress & Anxiety

We all deal with stress and anxiety no matter what our age. 

It can be in the form of real stress like an injury or the mental stress of school, relationships, or having to speak in public. 

The thing is, your child's body doesn't really know the difference and reacts the same way. 

The same fight or flight response takes place even if the stress is made up in our mind. 

Stress hormones like cortisol is released and the heart and respiratory rates elevate. 

This is bad news for your child's brain health as chronic cortisol secretion actually erodes their ability to learn as well as their ability to recover or create new memories. 

Cortisol also promotes fat storage, especially around their midsection -- another health risk. 

The great news is, exercise, especially aerobic exercise increases our stress tolerance and turns down the stress response. 

Not only does exercise relieve stress, but it significantly decreases all the negative side effects of stress like illness, tiredness, and disease. 

On the other side, it increases energy, productivity and time management.

When it comes to anxiety, many researches have found exercise to be as impactful as some anxiety medications. 

In fact, one study took nearly 200 high school students and split them in half.

Group 1 completed 1 day of a normal gym class per week.

Group 2 completes 3 days of rigorous exercise. 

The study found that Group 2 decreased their average anxiety score by 14%, while Group 1 only decrease their score by 3%.


If you workout, you can recall how good it feels when you complete your session. 

If you went into the workout stressed or unhappy, that probably changed. 

The same is true for your children. 

In fact, a 2001 study at Northern Arizona University showed that just 10 minutes of exercise can boost mood and motivation. 

To show how powerful exercise can be on our mood, a 1999 study at Duke University showed exercise to be as impactful as anti-depressant drugs. 

But how?

Enter three very important neurotransmitters or chemical messengers and one group of hormones -- serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine and endorphins. 

Exercise elevates these chemicals and hormones as well as their storage. 

The more we exercise, the more permanent these changes in our "feel good" brain chemicals become. 

They aid in increasing mood, attention, motivation, self-esteem while counteracting the negative effects of chronic cortisol. 

The great thing about exercise is that not only is it a great reactive strategy for children but also a fantastic preventative method for keeping our kids motivated, attentive and positive. 

How much exercise?

Even with all this data supporting exercise for our youth, our kids are playing and exercising at an all time low. 

Every year more and more schools are getting rid of gym classes to cut their budget. 

This makes it that much more important as parents to help our children get the exercise they need and start to build healthy, lifelong habits. 

At Dynamic, the amount of structured exercise really depends on their age. 

Kids under the age of 8 should try to play outside 3-6x/week for 30 minutes. 

As they get older, the exercise can become more structured like a program at DSC or by joining a sports team. 

At Dynamic, we have found the most benefit from having our middle-school athletes train with us 2x/week for 1-1.5hrs and our high-school and college age athletes train with us 3-4x/week for 1.5hr. 

Overall the evidence is very clear. 

Exercise, regardless if your child is an athlete or not, should be a big part of their life. 

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