You are not only what you eat. You are also what you do! You and your family's Brain Health is boosted by getting Exercise, having time for Play & Imagination, being in Nature, Sleeping, and spending time with Family & Friends.

We all want to help our kids' (and our own) brains grow and we are all busy parents. So we, at SmartyPants, organized ideas and tips about how to make sure your child gets enough BrainPlay into the 3 Pillars of Brain Health: Exercise, Mental Acuity, and Lifestyle & Sleep. Play on!


Like adults, kids use exercise to "clear their heads" and "blow off steam" as well as learn important motor skills and balance. Exercise has also been shown to positively impact academic performance and reduce the symptoms of ADD and ADHD.

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A brisk walk to and from school each day. Team sports. School recess. Or just a spirited game of rough house in the living room. Whatever form exercise takes, it can help children not only burn excess energy but also develop their brains.

Even single episodes of walking on a treadmill produce immediate academic improvements in school-aged children. Kids who get at least five minutes of daily exercise are far less likely to be obese. It also reduces stress and can mitigate the effects of ADD and ADHD by promoting a sense of calm that leads to greater attention spans and focus during school and over homework assignments.

For school-aged children, we follow the experts' advice and aim for 60 minutes a day of exercise, in whatever form it may take. We've all witnessed the boundless energy of a healthy child at play and the calm aftermath that typically follows. It's simply nature's way of preparing a healthy young body and mind for further growth, particularly in the brain's cells and circuitry. And a happy worn-out child, a happy parent makes...

Research on laboratory animals has shown that cardiovascular exercise prompts a rush of chemicals in the brain that, in effect, increases not only the number and brain cells but also their ability to connect and grow. One such chemical, known as BDNF, or brain-derived neurotropic factor, has been called by one expert "Miracle-Gro for the brain."

Kids who are active tend to have stronger muscles and bones, leaner bodies, lower risk of high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, and a more positive outlook on life.

Physically fit children also tend to sleep better and are handle physical and emotional challenges more adeptly, whether it's running to catch a bus or studying for a high-pressure test.

The Lasting Effects of Playing Team Sports

In addition to burning calories, playing team sports can also boost a child's self-esteem and teach them valuable lessons about how to work with others in a competitive environment.

Not every child has to join a team, and with enough other activities, kids can be fit without them. But we have found it definitely helps to find out why your child isn't interested. You might be able to help address deeper concerns or steer your child toward something else.

Tell your child that you'd like to work on a solution together. This might mean making changes and sticking with the team sport or finding a new activity to try. Though many sports programs are available for preschoolers, most children begin showing the physical skills, attention span and ability to grasp a sport's rules starting around ages 6 and 7.

The Myriad Benefits of Endurance

Endurance is developed when kids regularly engage in aerobic activity, during which the heart beats faster and a person breathes harder. When done regularly and continually, aerobic exercise strengthens a young heart and improves the body's ability to deliver oxygen to all its cells.

One of the best ways to get kids to be more active is to limit the amount of time spent in sedentary activities, especially watching TV or playing video games. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under the age of 2 years watch no TV at all and that screen time should be limited to no more than 1-2 hours of quality programming a day for kids 2 years and older.

Here are some tips we try to follow for raising fit kids:

  • * Make a regular schedule for physical activity.
  • * Incorporate physical activity into daily routines, like taking stairs instead of an elevator.
  • * Embrace a healthier lifestyle as a parent, to set a positive example for your kids.
  • * Keep it fun, to encourage your child to come back for more.

What If My Child Doesn't Like Sports or Playing in Groups?

Encourage subtle forms of being active: an after-dinner walk with your child (we like playing detective or 'i spy' and flower smelling as we go), tossing a Frisbee or volleyball, even a few spirited games of hopscotch. You'll give your child an opportunity to build skills and fitness in a safe, hopefully fun atmosphere, while allowing you to have quality time together.

Fitness Outside of Team Sports

Even kids who once said they hated sports might learn to like team sports as their skills improve or they find the right sport or a league. But even if team sports never thrill your child, there's plenty a kid can do to get the recommended 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day.

Free Play

Free play, the activity kids get when they're left to their own devices can be very important for kids who don't play a team sport. Free Play can be shooting a basketball alone, riding a bike, playing whiffleball or tee-ball, playing tag, jumping rope, or dancing. We know first-hand that nothing is guaranteed to make your children giggle more than watching you dance.

Mental Acuity

Playing games and "pretend" is good for your kid's brain? You bet! Imagination, problem solving, and mental skill building are great ways to boost a child's ability to concentrate, confidence, and sense of wonder.

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Plenty of exercise and a healthy balance between learning and playing, discipline and exploration is critical to any child's well being and mental and social development. So, too, is the kind of intellectual stimulation - creative writing, reading, critical thinking and so on - that produces first-rate young minds poised to succeed in school and career.

To help send our children down that path requires effort and thought to edit out routines that hinder brain development and promote those that foster it.

One of the easiest ways to promote mental acuity and curiosity is to give children plenty of exposure to challenging games that stretch a young mind's ability to think and concentrate.

Play Mind Games

Chess, crosswords, cryptograms, riddles or games from companies that make brain games like ThinkFun- they all train the brain to perform mental gymnastics. Games like Sudoku can be both fun and instructive of how to think strategically, solve problems on the fly make complex decisions. Keep brainteasers around the house and challenge your children to help you solve the trickier problems. We vote for offline versions just to keep them from spending too much time in front of the computer.

Introduce Music into your Child's Life

According to a study by University of Toronto researchers, organized music lessons appear to benefit children's IQ and academic performance-and the more years the student takes lessons, the greater the effect. The study found that taking music lessons in childhood was a clear predictor of better grades in high school and a higher IQ in adulthood.

Play Sports with your Kid

Participation in organized sports fosters confidence, teamwork and leadership, according to research by the Oppenheimer Funds. This study also found that 81 percent of women business executives played team sports as girls.

Play Video Games... Of A Certain Kind

Disregard mindless or violent games for adults. A growing library of educational video games help small children develop motor skills and memory. A recent study conducted at the University of Rochester found that participants who played video games recognized and learned visual cues much faster than their non-video-game-playing counterparts (but remember, try to keep total screen time to 1-2 hours a day).

Nurture a Curious Young Mind

Experts say parents who show curiosity and encourage their children to explore new ideas teach them a valuable lesson: Seeking knowledge is important. Experts say we should try to support our kids' hobbies and interests by asking them questions, teaching them new skills and taking them on educational outings to develop intellectual curiosity.

Read With Your Children

The time-honored, low-tech, sure-fire way to maximize our children's intelligence. Read to your children from an early age, sign your child up for a library card and keep the house stocked with books.


Sleeping, spending time in Nature, and being with family and friends all help a child get the rest they must have, the sense of adventure and connectedness they want, and the social skills they need. A socially connected and well-rested child's brain out in nature is a happy brain.

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While eating right and exercising are two of the three pillars of brain health, one key still remains: lifestyle! This is a relatively broad category but includes some critical aspects of our children's well-being: sleep, play, use of imagination, getting outside, healthy relationships with peers and family and what we call mental acuity, which is just a fancy way of saying that your kids benefit from learning a language, an instrument, or anything that encourages them to push their mental development.

Children whose families offer them healthy discipline - say, daily and weekly routines - as well as permission to be creative and expressive tend to be smart, secure children.

1) Kill the Television

To maximize your child's potential, one of the first rules experts advise us as parents to follow is limiting television and other tune-out activities that fail to stimulate imagination or challenge a child's capacity to learn more about the world (this includes the Internet!).

The percentage of overweight and obese kids and teens has more than doubled over the past 30 years. Although many factors contribute to this epidemic, children are becoming more sedentary. TV is a prime culprit of this trend. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average child watches about 3 hours of television a day. And the average kid spends 5 hours on all "screen media" (TV, videos and DVDs, computer time outside of schoolwork, and video games) combined. We wouldn't buy a prescription that bans movies or nature specials or the occasional mindless treat, but limiting online/TV time to an hour a day (not including research for homework, of course!) is probably a good idea.

2) Encourage Your Child to Play

Give kids free time to play, any way they want.

Play is rapidly disappearing from our homes, our schools, and our neighborhoods. Over the last two decades alone, children have lost eight hours of free, unstructured, and spontaneous play a week, studies have shown. More than 30,000 schools in the United States have eliminated recess to make more time for academics. From 1997 to 2003, children's time spent outdoors fell 50 percent, according to a study by Sandra Hofferth at the University of Maryland.

The reduction of play time, whether structured or free play, is detrimental to our children's health and intellectual development. Plenty of research has established play as crucial to physical, intellectual, and social-emotional development. This is especially true of the purest form of play: the unstructured, self-motivated, imaginative, independent kind, where children initiate their own games and even invent their own rules.

A 2007 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics documents that play promotes not only behavioral development but brain growth as well. The University of North Carolina's Abecedarian Early Child Intervention program found that children who received an enriched, play-oriented parenting and early childhood program had significantly higher IQ's at age five than did a comparable group of children who were not in the program (105 points vs. 85 points).

3) The Power of Routines and Single-Tasking

Research suggests there are additional benefits for children who have set bedtimes.

Sleep patterns and sleep routines matter because they have both long-term and short-term implications for health and cognitive development, said Lauren Hale, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University Medical Center in Stony Brook, New York. Bad habits that begin in childhood, she added, also tend to insinuate themselves into the child's life in adulthood, too.

Also, encourage single-tasking routines, like eat without the TV or radio on or having homework or other work at the table. Make having meals together as a family a habit. (This means we, too, as parents, have to set an example by not being on our blackberry's/iphone while we are eating with our kids or working on the computer when we are supposed to be playing together.

4) We Have to Walk the Walk...

As you have seen first hand, no doubt, children learn a lot more from what we do than by what we say, so if we want them to have good health habits, we have to examine our own lifestyle choices first. If they see you taking good care of yourself, the chances are higher that they will follow suit themselves. When we saw our kids playing "blackberry", we knew it was time to stop being distracted in their presence.

Give positive, genuine feedback. Be sure your child understands that you are supportive of positive habits, not simply unsupportive of bad ones. Saying, for instance, "I noticed you chose an apple as a snack after school today. Good job!" encourages healthy choices perhaps more than, "Potato chips will make you fat!"

5) Listening Matters

Basics that are good for us all to remember: consider your child's feelings and needs, including the need to follow interests that are not your own. Don't lose sight of the wonderful person you're trying to help. Treat that young person with care but also respect, and ask for the same in return. This is obvious stuff, of course, but hard to remember when you are tired from work or a long day of chasing rug rats!

6) Eat Meals, especially Breakfast, as a Family, if possible

A strong body of research dating back to the 1970s shows that eating breakfast improves memory, concentration and learning. And children who don't eat breakfast tend to tire easier, be more irritable and react less quickly than those who begin the day with a solid meal.

7) Sleep is VERY Important

According to the American Psychological Association, getting enough sleep is critically important for you and your child's brain. Sleep not only rests your brain so it can replenish key neurotransmitters, it also boosts, alertness, increases attention spans, and boosts memory. Sleep also has been shown to significantly help in learning and retention. Most people, kids included, do not get enough sleep. Kids generally need more sleep than adults, usually 9.5 hours/night for adolescents and more for younger children. Strengthen you and your kids' brains by snoozing.

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