Study Finds That More Physical Activity And Less Screen Time Is Better For Executive Function In Kids

Playful Bee

Many parents and educators have been saying this for some time, but a new study has found that for children 24-months-old and below, spending less than 60-minutes a day looking at a screen or gadget every day, while engaging in more physical activities, have better executive function.

This toddlers’ program was designed according to the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)on physical activity. Their executive function was also measured against a second group who did not meet these particular guidelines.

The aim of the study was to see the difference in the toddlers’ abilities to remember, pay attention, plan, regulate their own thoughts and behavior, shift between tasks, all of which encompass the skills known as executive function in toddlers.

According to Naiman Khan, a University of Illinois professor who led the study, said, “Executive function underlies your ability to engage in goal-directed behaviors.”

Prof. Khan added, “It includes abilities such as inhibitory control, which allows you to regulate your thoughts, emotions and behavior; working memory, by which you are able to hold information in mind long enough to accomplish a task; and cognitive flexibility, the adeptness with which you switch your attention between tasks or competing demands.”

The AAP, which has a Bright Futures initiative, recommends that children should spend less than 60 minutes looking at screens every day, and rather, engage in daily physical activities. They also recommend that children eat five or more servings of fruit and vegetables, while also minimizing or if possible, eliminating the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. In essence, these initiatives aren’t very different from the guidelines that adults ought to follow as well.

Former studies have linked such adherence to these guidelines for physical activity levels, screen time and diet quality with the executive function of children that are school-aged or in their adolescent years.

One of Khan’s graduate students, as well as a co-author of the study, Arden McMath, shared, “We wanted to test the hypothesis that healthy weight status and adherence to the AAP guidelines for diet and physical activity would extend to greater executive function in 24-month-old children.” 

She added, “We focused on an earlier period in child development to see whether and how early in life these relationships begin.”

The new research included 365 toddlers and their families as participants in the STRONG KIDS 2 cohort study at the University of Illinois. The study ‘takes a long-term look at the interdependent factors that predict dietary habits and weight trajectories of children who are followed from birth to 5-years-old.’

The study research used parental surveys and data on the kids that were collected over five years, during eight time points, one of which was when the kids were 24-months-old.

McMath said, “The surveys asked parents to report on several aspects of their child’s daily habits, including how much time they looked at screens, how physically active they were, whether they had at least five servings of fruits and vegetables and whether they refrained from drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Moreover, the parents were also asked to answer a standard survey that was designed precisely to measure the executive function in toddlers. The questions that were asked were meant to evaluate the kids’ abilities to ‘plan and organize their thoughts, regulate their emotional responses, inhibit impulses, remember information and shift attention between tasks.’

Then, the team used a structural equation modeling technique to create their assessments on the data collected.

McMath explained, “We found that toddlers who engaged in less than 60 minutes of screen time per day had significantly greater ability to actively control their own cognition than those who spent more time staring at phones, tablets, televisions and computers. They had greater inhibitory control, working memory and overall executive function.”

What researchers discovered was that the toddlers that got daily physical activity did substantially better on tests of working memory than those that didn’t get out for play.

Khan concluded, “The influence of engaging in healthy behaviors on cognitive abilities appears to be evident in early childhood, particularly for behaviors surrounding physical activity and sedentary time.”