Investigation of the effects of physical activity on executive function in the early childhood setting
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Health is essential for children’s cognitive and physical development, yet often is undermined in school environments. Research indicates the use of physical activity within the school environment as a protective factor, ultimately diminishing obesity and augmenting student health outcomes (Sallis et al., 1993; Sallis et al., 1999). Further, research evidence such as that physical activity (PA) is a facilitator of executive functioning among children (Davis et al., 2011; Diamond & Lee, 2011). The purpose of this dissertation was to elucidate the role of PA on executive function in early childhood. A sample of 210 children and 23 teachers participated in this series of three studies. In study one, children completed a psychosocial survey and engaged in a short duration, acute bout of PA. Teacher participants completed a survey investigating their perceptions of the classroom environment. Analyses revealed that student perceptions of enjoyment while participating in PA are significantly related to time spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA), and that teacher perceptions of classroom environment are a significant predictor; inversely associated with student time spent in MVPA. The second study, utilized a repeated measures research design to investigate the effect of PA on executive function and found that type of PA significantly contributed to cognitive performance. Participants who danced for approximately five minutes had increased accuracy and faster response time over participants engaged in aerobic or yoga activities. The attentional performance also significantly increased for dance participants as compared to those involved in aerobic and yoga. In study three, path analyses explored main and mediating effects of PA on psychosocial, environmental and cognitive variables. Although all PA did not significantly mediate EF, there were significant main effects for both dance and aerobic PA on cognition in early childhood. As a means of preventing disease and enhancing cognitive health, short bouts of PA hold value in the pre-school classroom as they enhance executive functioning, which subserves learning. Findings from these three studies are of public health interest as we find that classroom PA engagement is a critical factor to the health and academic success of the whole child.