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Objective

Children who are less fit reportedly have lower performance on tests of cognitive control and differences in brain function. This study examined the effect of an exercise intervention on brain function during two cognitive control tasks in overweight children.

Design and Methods

Participants included 43 unfit, overweight (BMI ≥ 85th percentile) children 8- to 11-years old (91% Black), who were randomly divided into either an aerobic exercise (n = 24) or attention control group (n = 19). Each group was offered a separate instructor-led after-school program every school day for 8 months. Before and after the program, all children performed two cognitive control tasks during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): antisaccade and flanker.

Results

Compared to the control group, the exercise group decreased activation in several regions supporting antisaccade performance, including precentral gyrus and posterior parietal cortex, and increased activation in several regions supporting flanker performance, including anterior cingulate and superior frontal gyrus.

Conclusions

Exercise may differentially impact these two task conditions, or the paradigms in which cognitive control tasks were presented may be sensitive to distinct types of brain activation that show different effects of exercise. In sum, exercise appears to alter efficiency or flexible modulation of neural circuitry supporting cognitive control in overweight children.