Neuroscience for Teachers: Intro + Definitions (Part I)

The benefits of active classrooms are well known amongst GoNoodlers… improved engagement, focus, and behavior to name a few… But do physical activity and aerobic fitness scientifically affect the cognitive skills important for academic performance? If so, how? These are questions educators at the classroom and administrative level are looking to answer. In this series, Dr. Laura Chaddock-Heyman, research scientist at the University of Illinois-Champaign, shares how exercise and fitness relate to the brain and why this is of utmost importance for educators.

Physical inactivity has accelerated over the last century, and as a result, children are becoming increasingly overweight, unhealthy, and unfit.  ?It is well known that aerobic fitness and physical activity are associated with physical health, such as risk of obesity and metabolic disorders.

A growing body of empirical findings also suggests that aerobic fitness and physical activity are positively related to cognitive and brain health.

Higher fit children outperform lower fit peers on tasks of attention, memory, and academic achievement. Higher and lower fit children also show significant differences in the structure and function of the brain.

Yet schools, which teach approximately 55.5 million children between 5-17 years of age, continue to contribute to the declining physical and cognitive health of youth through the implementation of policies aimed at minimizing or replacing physical activity opportunities during the school day – ironically,? in an effort to increase academic performance.

My research team emphasizes the importance of physical activity and aerobic fitness during development – a key time to maximize the plasticity and flexibility of the growing brain.

In this blog series, we will be exploring how aerobic fitness and physical activity positively relate to ?the brain and cognition during preadolescent childhood development. In other words, I will show you why getting kids moving at school is not only critical for neurological development, but also for cognitive abilities important for academic performance.

As all educators know, it’s important to understand our vocabulary before diving into more complex concepts. So, let’s begin with some neuroscience definitions and a deeper look into how our research was conducted.


Aerobic fitness is defined as the maximal capacity of the cardiorespiratory system to use oxygen. Fitness can be best measured via a VO2max treadmill test in which children walk and run on a treadmill at increasing speed and grade.

Physical activity is defined as bodily movement that requires energy expenditure above normal physiological demands, e.g., walking, running, swimming, biking, playing sports.


Cognition is defined as the set of mental abilities related to thinking and knowledge, e.g., memory, attention, multitasking.

As children get older and develop, cognitive skills improve, in terms of higher accuracy and faster speed of processing. The development of the brain parallels improvements in cognition. ?

To measure cognition, we ?administer cognitive tasks of:

  1. Memory – The ability to recall information. e.g. Do you remember what images you saw? And which images were grouped together?

  2. Cognitive control – Skills such as paying attention, ignoring distractions, multitasking, and making decisions. e.g., Focus on the direction of central arrow and ignore surrounding distractors.


  1. Brain structure – Volume, or size, of specific brain regions.

  2. White matter structural integrity – White matter fiber tracts carry information between brain regions. More dense, fibrous tracts (those with more structural integrity) suggest faster and more efficient communication of signals throughout the brain.

  3. Brain function – A measurement of how “active” brain regions are during cognitive challenges – by measuring oxygen in the blood.


My research team at the University of Illinois-Champaign studies the associations among aerobic fitness, physical activity, cognition, brain structure, white matter structural integrity, and brain function.

In general, we recruit preadolescent children from the Champaign-Urbana community, age 8-10. Each child completes a treadmill test of VO2 max to measure his or her  aerobic fitness capacity.  Then the children are split into two extreme fitness groups: 1) higher fit (>70th percentile of VO2max) and 2) lower fit (<30th percentile of VO2max).  The groups are matched in terms of age, gender, IQ, pubertal timing, and socioeconomic status.

Children in both groups complete the same cognitive tasks and a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan to measure brain structure, white matter structural integrity, and brain function. MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to produce pictures of the brain.

Then to understand how aerobic fitness relates to the brain and cognition, we compare the brain and cognitive measures of the two fitness groups.

Now that you know the science lingo, let’s dig into the how and why of exercise and the brain!

Stay tuned for more enlightening research from Dr. Laura Chaddock-Heyman! For a simple way to incorporate more physical activity in the school day, visit for free classroom brain breaks.