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Title:Success in reading… what’s the meaning? The relationship between changes in children’s aerobic fitness and language processing
Author(s):Scudder, Mark R.
Director of Research:Hillman, Charles H.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Hillman, Charles H.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Federmeier, Kara D.; McAuley, Edward; Petruzzello, Steven J.
Department / Program:Kinesiology & Community Health
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Aerobic fitness
event-related brain potentials
language processing
Abstract:Recent studies have demonstrated that participation in physical activity (PA) programs is a viable means for improving children’s cardiovascular health, including body weight maintenance and increases in aerobic fitness. Additionally, such health outcomes appear to be related to better academic achievement, as well as the underlying cognitive processes governing such performance (i.e., inhibitory control, working memory, etc.). Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) have been instrumental for uncovering further details about the relationship between aerobic fitness and individual aspects of cognitive control; however, very few studies have employed this technique to investigate children’s language processing. Accordingly, children participated in an after-school PA program over the 9-month academic calendar, while outcome measures were assessed at both pre- and post-test using repeated measures multivariate analysis of variance. In addition to aerobic fitness, demographics, and standardized academic achievement scores, outcome measures included children’s performance on a sentence comprehension task while ERPs were recorded. The N400 and P600 ERP components were of particular interest and provided further information about children’s semantic (i.e., meaning) processing and access to word-related knowledge, as well as their ability to detect syntactic ambiguities and allocate resources towards re-analysis and repair. Secondary hierarchical regression analyses were also conducted to determine the relationship between changes in aerobic fitness and children’s post-test academic performance after controlling for pre-test fitness levels and academic scores, important demographic variables (i.e., age, sex, socioeconomic status [SES], BMI, IQ [intelligence quotient]), and N400/P600 amplitude. Lastly, to replicate prior work, twenty-eight children residing at the lower (≤ 30th percentile) and higher (≥ 70th percentile) ends of the fitness distribution were matched on age, sex, SES, and IQ, and outcome measures were compared. Contrary to our hypothesis, children in the intervention group did not exhibit greater increases in aerobic fitness compared to the wait-list control group, yet children in the intervention did display smaller increases in weight and BMI. Given the lack of fitness change, it was not surprising that the intervention group did not experience greater academic gains or increases in sentence performance, nor were there any group ERP differences; however, increases in aerobic fitness were observed among the wave 1 control group (albeit unexpectedly). Interestingly, compared to other participants, greater improvements in academic achievement and sentence performance were witnessed among children in wave 1, with larger increases in academic composite scores occurring primarily in the wave 1 control group versus children in the intervention. Regression analyses also revealed a marginal association between increases in aerobic fitness and greater improvements on standardized tests of reading. This effect was not mediated by the inclusion of children’s N400 and P600 amplitude, which were both independently related to academic performance involving language-based abilities (note: children in wave 1 also had overall larger N400 amplitude compared to other waves). Finally, exploratory comparisons between higher and lower fit children, matched on important demographics, partially replicated findings from an earlier study. Despite no differences in academic performance, higher fit children demonstrated greater sentence task accuracy as well as greater overall N400 amplitude compared to lower fit children (replicating prior findings), yet lower fit children displayed shorter latencies (opposing prior findings). The current results extend previous work by providing evidence that not only higher aerobic fitness levels, but also increases in children’s fitness may be related to superior performance on standardized academic achievement measures. Future studies will be necessary to determine if this relationship is indeed selective to reading, or to a broader array of academic domains. Future studies should also continue to design and implement effective PA programs or other strategies that result in the greatest gains for aerobic fitness, especially in terms of targeting and influencing the vast majority of children. Finally, although ERP latency and amplitude changed little over the course of a year and were not associated with changes in fitness, certain component characteristics do appear to be important markers of children’s academic achievement, which may reveal further details if tracked over a longer period of development. Such information would continue to aid researchers in understanding the impact that aerobic fitness and other aspects of cardiovascular health have on children’s cognitive and academic performance, and ensure that programs are optimally designed to deliver the overall greatest possible benefits for children’s health and well-being.
Issue Date:2016-10-20
Rights Information:Copyright 2016 Mark Scudder
Date Available in IDEALS:2017-03-01
Date Deposited:2016-12

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