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Children’s playtime has evolved over time, together with technology and the entertainment industry. What were once endless soccer games in the neighbourhood have evolved into hours spent in front of the TV screen or the latest game console. Unless it’s an organized physical activity, as football practice 2 times per week, parents have to beg their children to go out and play. 

However, if we were to observe the way children play when they’re outside, their activities would probably include bursts of jumping up and down or fast sprints while playing hide and seek, followed by periods of walking, talking or playing in the sand. In essence, children are prone to doing high-intensity interval training by their nature.  

Now, there’s a new study by Moreau et al. which has shown that HIIT trumps moderate physical activity when it comes to cognitive skills and that it also has amazing effects on children’s health.

The Study

The researchers studied 318 children between 7 and 13 years of age during a 6-week period. At the beginning of the 6 weeks, the children were given tasks to complete, which served as an assessment of two categories: short-term memory and cognitive control. The first is self-explanatory; the latter means that the scientists tested the children’s ability to process information and control their impulses. Both of these categories are proven to be crucial in the prediction of success, both academic and professional, later in life. 

After the children have completed the first set of tasks, they were randomly assigned to two groups: one group did 10 minutes of high-intensity exercise every day for 6 weeks (that is 5 hours of physical activity total), while in the second (placebo) group, the children participated in activities that were aimed at their enjoyment and motivation. 

After the designated time period, the children repeated the type of tasks they did before the study beginning, and the results were interesting, to say the least – the HIIT group had greater improvements in both cognitive and memory tests, compared to the placebo group. 

Key Takeaways

So far, most of the studies on high-intensity interval training focused more on its effects on physical abilities and fat burning, rather than the more profound effects this type of exercise can have on the brain.

By indicating that HIIT can greatly improve cognitive functions in children, this study has shown that the long-held belief that only longer, endurance cardio exercises have beneficial effects on cognitive abilities are unfounded. In the words of Dr Moreau of The University of Auckland, New Zealand: „It remains that exercise is one of the most beneficial and non-invasive ways of enhancing cognition. Furthermore, we've shown that it needs not be time-consuming - as little as 5 hours of exercise can lead to sizeable benefits.“

It’s important to note that, even though exercise is the easiest, most intuitive way of improving cognitive functions, there are still some conditions that especially affect children (ADHD, for example) that require individualized treatment. HIIT exercise cannot be considered as a one-size-fits-all solution to any cognitive defect, but this study has set a great foundation for further research on the effects of HIIT on cognitive abilities.

Perhaps even more exciting, the study has proven to be the most useful to the children that most needed it – namely, the children that had poor cardiovascular health, and those with a gene variant that is linked to poorer cognitive skills. This has shown that targeted exercise, specifically created for these purposes, can provide everyone with a chance to improve their cognitive abilities and thrive, regardless of the genetic material they possess. 

Ways to Implement HIIT in Children’s Routine

As most of us know, children don’t always do what’s good for them. They know that the apple is healthy, but 99% of kids will still pick a candy bar for a snack. It’s the same with the exercise. It’s not enough that they know about how healthy an exercise is, it just has to be fun for them. 

There are two ways to make HIIT a part of children’s everyday life. One is to implement it in gym classes (for example Metafit) that are mandatory for everyone. The nature of HIIT allows for an easy implementation into the existing classes, given that it requires no special equipment and is ridiculously short. 

The second way, until the idea of children doing HIIT becomes mainstream, is to make it a fun activity that you and your child will do together – a playdate if you will. Not only will it do good for the whole family, but it can also become a family time that will create some amazing memories! Think of some interesting, bodyweight exercises that are fun and demanding, arrange them into high-intensity intervals and get to it! Be playful, supportive and competitive, and consider throwing a reward your children won’t be able to resist into the mix and boom! You’ve just turned exercise into a fun time your kids will be looking forward to.