By NICK THOMAS
The benefits of exercise for the physical health of children and adults is well-established, but Auburn University at Montgomery professor Erin Reilly says physical activity is also important for a child’s brain development.
“When I began my research, it was mainly a qualitative study of sport subcultures – martial arts and then pool (billiards),” explained Reilly, who works in Auburn Montgomery’s Department of Kinesiology where researchers study the science and mechanics of body movement. “About 18 years ago my interest was sparked in the cognitive benefits of exercise and physical activity and that is my current focus.”
Reilly says a rise in sensory processing issues among children, due in part to cultural changes, has prompted more research in this area.
“Children are not playing and moving as much as they need to,” she noted. “I believe when parents, teachers, and policymakers understand the science behind the importance of movement for brain development they are more likely to make appropriate adjustments.”
Working with a local physical therapist (Tiffany Higginbotham), Reilly has developed group exercise classes to help children with learning and attention issues.
“It gets heart rates up to a level that research has shown will have a positive cognitive benefit,” said Reilly. “Children not only improved balance, coordination, and other physical parameters, but we found that their average mental age was increased by over 11 months in 6 weeks.”
The program has been expanded to create a “Brain Pump” class for pre-school and elementary children, as well as adults with intellectual disabilities. “We have done presentations all over the state, at national conferences, and even presented the research results in Brazil, Germany, and Ireland.”
Currently, Reilly, Higginbotham, and AUM’s Dr. Angela Russell are studying another health issue in children – measuring muscle activation during asymmetric tonic neck reflex, an involuntary movement of arms and legs when an infant turns its head to one side.
“Normally it disappears after several months, but it’s sometimes present in older children and can interfere with learning,” said Reilly. “It’s also observed in individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and dyslexia. We are hoping that the research can lead to a more objective diagnosis and effective treatments.”
Reilly first became interested in exercise science after attending a conference by Jean Blaydes Moize, an internationally known educational consultant, and has worked at AUM since 2000.
“I was just finishing up my dissertation at the University of Kansas and wanted to be closer to my parents, who live in Wetumpka,” she says. “My brother and my sister-in-law are also both AUM graduates, so I knew it was a great school.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 700 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.com).