Evidence that exercise improves health has long been available. Nevertheless, less than a quarter of children aged between 4 and 11 get enough exercise, and the situation is even worse among adolescents. This is alarming, because exercise is good for your mind as well as for your body. I wanted to quantify the neurocognitive effect, and found that children who took no part in organized sport performed worse in tasks involving working memory, and also had poorer concentration than children who did take part in sport.
The second part of my study concerned neurocognitive function and motor skills in young top footballers. My data came from a study of the neurocognitive performance of talented young footballers who were playing for one of the Dutch premier league teams. This project fits in well with the mission statement of VU University Amsterdam, which urges all members of the university community to “look further” – further than their own personal interests and their own discipline, into as yet unknown regions, further than the here and now. We have done this by focusing on mental aspects as well as movement, and on the relationship between the two in young top athletes. Our measurements show that talented sportsmen can adapt their locomotor system as quick as lightning to meet changes in the game situation.
Now that I am a postdoctoral researcher, I would like to continue my investigations in greater depth. In cooperation with the University of Groningen, Radboud University Nijmegen and the CITO test and assessment institute, I applied for a grant from the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science for a study of the influence of exercise on the scholastic performance of Dutch primary school pupils. Now that this application has been approved, we can start on a four-year national study that is unique both in its scope and its objective. The interdisciplinary approach to be adopted here fits in perfectly with the aim of the new faculty to achieve synergy between the various disciplines involved. For example, we will steadily increase our insight into the strong links between the parts of the brain involved in movement on the one hand and neurocognitive functions such as memory on the other. This knowledge should prove very useful in our “gym” study and will, I hope, help to promote more physical activity in Dutch children in the near future.