The human brain, the most complicated object in the known universe, has only one output to the world: muscles. That’s it. For this reason, over two-thirds of a brain’s neurons—more than 40 billion of them—are involved exclusively in motor feedback and learning. A brain spends almost all of its energy per day planning how to move. It needs to move. It wants to move. It evolved to move. So why don’t we let it?
If they act up in class, they aren’t given time-outs but time-ins—10 minutes of activity on a stationary bike or an elliptical trainer.
Exercise Is Medicine
Regular exercise is essential for longterm health and short-term wellness. A short run per day is far better than an apple at keeping the doctor away because the heart is constantly feeding the brain all the energy it needs to keep going. Heart health is brain health. Exercise is thought to be so important that it is being prescribed—no longer just “suggested”—by more and more doctors to help with a wide range of mental health ailments in youths, including for ADHD, anxiety and depression. The recent scientific findings are so strong that an organization, Exercise Is Medicine, was founded by the American Medical Association, with support from the US Surgeon General, to promote physical activity’s essential benefits. The World Health Organization has linked exercise in youths around the world to both higher academic performance and an increase in healthy lifestyle choices, like avoiding tobacco, alcohol or drug use.
Motor Skills Shape Neurons
Exercise is even more important in the growing brain than in the adult brain, because learning motor skills as a youth helps organize the brain’s decision making, improves cognitive performance, increases neuroplasticity and shapes neurons into their most efficient patterns. According to a 2018 Harvard Medical School study, exercise may even contribute to the healthy environment necessary for new neurons to grow. But is all youth exercise equal? When should youths exercise? What kinds of sports or games are best? How much is too much? Do risks from injury outweigh the benefits?
Exercise-induced epigenetic changes may be critical for warding off or slowing the progression of cancers and neurological disorders as well as metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. In other words, exercise can cause the body to activate helpful genetic traits and suppress the activation of harmful genetic traits. New research is also connecting mobility, coordination and complex movement to increased brain plasticity—a benefit that repeating simple motions (such as weightlifting) doesn’t seem to provide.
Non-routine coordinated cognitive and visual tasks involving physical movement make new connections between brain regions, awakening dormant mental and physical potential.
Studies show that these activities:
- Increase Creativity
- Increase Concentration
- Reduce Stress
- Increase Speed of Action
- Reduce Error on Cognitive Tests
- Increase Visual Perception and Balance
Language learning offers a good analogy. Language evolved to take over hand-gesture regions of primate brains, and it is well known that youths have a critical window for learning languages. After this window closes, learning is possible but slowed. The same window exists for all motor skills, not just language, and the benefits hold for an entire lifetime.
A brain skilled in moving is a better-prepared brain for all kinds of thinking.
More active youths think quicker and make better decisions in confusing environments, like crossing the street. Learning in team-based sports teaches rapid, strategic “executive function”— useful for many, if not all, of life’s future demands and the growth of these skills in the developing youth brain is as important for cognitive flexibility as learning grammar and syntax is for language.
Sports and Games Unlock the Brain
The best possible future for youth exercise will require a combination of social, technological and scientific advances. Social advances should emphasize structured sport for all youths, regardless of inclination or ability, and technological advances could be AI-based pets or devices that nudge youths into helpful practices, like an always-present, encouraging coach. The goal is the same: structured, intelligent, coordinated movement. A sedentary environment for a youth is as harmful for brain health as a silent environment is for linguistic ability. Consider the tiny sea squirt, a small aquatic organism which, as soon as it finds a suitable rock to latch onto, proceeds to dissolve, and eat, its own brain. The sea squirt’s logic is sound. What is the use of having a brain to control muscles if you never need to move? Though a tad on the dramatic side, the lesson remains: Do we want the same sedentary fate for our children? Games and sports unlock the brain. How can we make sure kids get the right keys and at the right time?
The coronavirus shut down sports at every level for months. Youth sports programs and eventually tournaments restarted, but unevenly, with states like New York and California allowing only scaled back versions. Organizations ranging from UNICEF to the Mayo Clinic to the Positive Coaching Alliance have weighed in on the importance of these outlets to children’s mental and emotional well-being. With varying levels of restrictions in place, parents have scrambled to find ways to keep their kids active, through improvised backyard games, open-space gatherings with core pods of friends who don’t mix with other kids, or in-house exercise programs. Parents know their kids’ health, well-being and brains depend on it.
The Future Is Already Here Dep’t
Parents, educators and doctors want kids to move more. Kids want Netflix, Spotify Premium and the ability to buy in-game skins for their Fortnite characters. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban saw a way to make both camps happy and invested in Lympo, a cryptocurrency you earn by exercising. Technology companies are integrating sensors into sports gear to allow video game action to cross over into real-life activities (see Section 10, “Infinite Field of Play”).
Bonus: Parents concerned with their kids spending an inordinate amount of time on TikTok can take solace in Harvard Medical School Associate Professor John Ratey, MD’s assertion that far and away the best exercise for building neural capacity and battling ADHD is … dance.
Physiological, technical and economic evolutions across sport, business, nutrition and medicine have ushered in a golden age of US athletics, with growth at home and achievement on the world stage. As the internet, social media and video games have become as embedded in education as the blackboard once was, youth access to interactive, virtual worlds with physical movement has encouraged the best kinds of brain and body development. “Crossover” real-world/video game hybrids (see Section 10, “Infinite Field of Play”) have made physical motion an important part of success in online games, and with that came a steady and heralded reversal
of the US obesity epidemic. Exercise, no longer a break from learning, has become recognized as a key factor for brain growth.
The COVID-19 crisis sapped the economy and curtailed sports participation long enough that families lost interest and kids fell into lassitude, boredom and sedentary videogame play. This development placed a heavier burden on school systems to innovate, but they largely failed to invest in approaches connecting in-class and online learning to physical movement. Kids without access to pricey tech-exercise plat- forms stopped exercising, finding solace in non mobile gaming. Research comparing digital school districts (of which there were few) with traditional schools showed that the inability to integrate exercise into curricula was the major variable determining negative outcomes for youth in those traditional schools. Even worse, the growing cultural apathy about exercise, health and long-term nutritional care was passed down to Generation Alpha, and the critical chance to reverse the society-wide slide into an obesity pandemic was entirely missed.
Nowadays, the world’s sports fans, sponsors and most innovative organizations have largely shifted their focus to Europe, Africa and Asia as hotspots for the next generation of athletes and leaders.
Report: The Future of Youth Sports
10 in-depth topics from recruiting to brain development to esports.
We take a deep look at the best and worst-case scenarios for the future of youth sports as parents, coaches, futurists, industry experts—and former youth athletes.