Your Health

Active kids have better brain function

Photo of a group of kids running on a playground.
Photo of Dr. Lawrence Elliott. DR. LAWRENCE ELLIOTT
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, September 7, 2018
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Now that the school year is underway, many parents are once again focussed on helping their children maximize their academic potential.

For some, that will involve making time to help kids with their homework. For others, it might mean hiring a tutor to provide some after-class instruction.

But there is one other thing parents can do to help their kids reach their academic potential: make sure they get daily exercise.

That was one of the main points made in the 2018 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, which was released earlier this year.

Developed by a team of pediatric neuroscientists, exercise scientists, clinicians and practitioners, the report card says children need at least one hour of moderate to vigorous activity each and every day to maximize their brain power.

Numerous studies show that kids who meet this minimum guideline have better brain function, including memory and problem-solving skills, than those who don’t. In addition, regular physical activity enhances mental health by working to decrease depression and anxiety and increase feelings of self-esteem and happiness.

“Regular physical activity, even in short bursts, can help kids’ brains on many levels,” said Dr. Mark Tremblay, Chief Scientific Officer for the report card.

“Kids who are more active have increased self-esteem and are generally more focused and less stressed compared to their less active peers,” said Tremblay, who is also Director of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. “For example, students who exercise before a test show stronger brain function than those who don’t. Furthermore, kids with brain-based disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder or ADHD, may experience even greater improvements in learning and thinking as a result of regular physical activity.”

There is one problem with this: Canadian kids aren’t as active as they need to be.

According to ParticipACTION’s report card, Canadian children scored D+ for overall physical activity. It also shows that just a little over one third of Canadian children between five and 17 years of age are getting the recommended level of physical activity they need. This means the majority of kids are not active enough to harness the power that physical activity has on healthy physical, mental and brain development.

So, what can be done to help children and youth solve the brain-body equation?

As you might expect, the report card suggests adding more physical activity to kids’ routines. For example, parents could adopt the 24-hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth, which were unveiled by ParticipACTION in 2016. The guidelines strike a balance between the levels of physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep required for optimal growth and development.

In addition to calling for at least one hour of moderate to vigorous activity every day for kids between five and 17 years of age, the guidelines also suggest:

  • All kids get several hours of light, unstructured physical activity each week.
  • Kids between the ages of five and 13 get nine to 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. Kids between the ages of 14 and 17 should get eight to 10 hours of sleep every night.
  • Recreational screen time should be limited to no more than two hours per day.

The report card also lays out some other ways we can all support active kids:

Parents and families:

  • Create opportunities to do family activities together and be a role model for being physically active.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to play outdoors and to participate in recreation and sports.

Health-care professionals:

  • Share information on the benefits of physical activity.
  • Recommend or prescribe physical activity to complement other interventions.


  • Incorporate activity learning into lesson plans and encourage students to take stretch breaks.
  • Do not take away play time from students. Recess and active play time is vital to learning and can help kids focus.

Community organizations and governments:

  • Make physical activity accessible. Address barriers by providing additional supports to low-income families and families with children with disabilities.
  • Create policies to support physical activity in children and youth settings and support staff training.
  • Support healthy built environments. Prioritize active transportation infrastructure, community parks, and natural play spaces.

For more information on this year’s report card and to view a copy of the 24-hour Movement Guidelines – visit and learn how to build your best day.

Dr. Lawrence Elliott is Medical Director of Population and Public Health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, September 7, 2018.

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