Physical activity and brain development

How physical activity improves cognitive function (brain development!)

Guest Post by Emma Reynolds, Paediatric Physiotherapist

Early childhood (the first five years) is the one of the most critical and intensive periods of brain development (Khan & Hillman, 2014). 

Physical activity in children is known to aid muscle and bone development, improve balance and co-ordination as well as achieve and maintain healthy weight.  Physical activity is also increasingly being acknowledged to influence cognitive function or thinking skills (Carson et. al., 2016).

Cognitive function covers several domains; language, memory, executive function and spatial awareness (Carson et al., 2016).

  • Language; the ability to comprehend and produce speech with increasing complexity to communicate with others.
  • Memory; the ability to recognise, store and access information for later use.
  • Executive function; the ability to regulate thoughts, attention, actions, and emotions.
  • Spatial awareness; the ability to organise objects and layouts, and use them for physical tasks (e.g reaching, walking etc).

There is a growing body of literature that suggest that physical activity starting in early childhood has beneficial effects on cognitive development, particularly working memory, attention, classroom behaviour and academic achievement (Zeng et. al., 2017).  In addition to this, it is understood that motor skills and cognitive skills have several underlying process that are the same such as planning, monitoring and sequencing (Zeng et. al., 2017).

There is also a relationship between physical fitness and motor skills with memory and attention (Niederer et. al., 2011).   Physical activity is therefore integral not only to the development of gross motor skills but also plays a significant role in the development of cognitive or thinking skills. 

Current Australian 24-hour Movement Guidelines for early years (Birth to 5 years) recommend 180 minutes or three hours of activity spread out over the course of the day (Okley et al., 2017). 

This can be achieved through various types of activity such as walking, climbing, balancing, obstacle course etc.  There has never been a better reason to get MOOV'ing! 




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