Fitness, cortical thickness and surface area in overweight/obese children: The mediating role of body composition and relationship with intelligence

Irene Esteban-Cornejo, Jose Mora-Gonzalez, Cristina Cadenas-Sanchez, Oren Contreras-Rodriguez, Juan Verdejo-Román, Pontus Henriksson, Jairo H. Migueles, Maria Rodriguez-Ayllon, Pablo Molina-García, Chao Suo, Charles H. Hillman, Arthur F. Kramer, Kirk I. Erickson, Andrés Catena, Antonio Verdejo-García, Francisco B. Ortega

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


Cortical thickness and surface area are thought to be genetically unrelated and shaped by independent neurobiological events suggesting that they should be considered separately in morphometric analyses. Although the developmental trajectories of cortical thickness and surface area may differ across brain regions and ages, there is no consensus regarding the relationships of physical fitness with cortical thickness and surface area as well as for its subsequent influence on intelligence. Thus, this study examines: (i) the associations of physical fitness components (i.e., cardiorespiratory fitness, speed-agility and muscular fitness) with overall and regional cortical thickness and surface area; (ii) whether body composition indicators (i.e., body mass index, fat-free mass index and fat mass index) mediate these associations; and (iii) the association of physical fitness and cortical thickness with intelligence in overweight/obese children. A total of 101 overweight/obese children aged 8–11 years were recruited in Granada, Spain. The physical fitness components were assessed following the ALPHA health-related fitness test battery. T1-weighted images were acquired with a 3.0 Tesla Siemens Magnetom Tim Trio system. We used FreeSurfer software version 5.3.0 to assess cortical thickness (mm) and surface area (mm 2 ). The main results showed that cardiorespiratory fitness and speed-agility were related to overall cortical thickness (β = 0.321 and β = 0.302, respectively; both P < 0.05), and in turn, cortical thickness was associated with higher intelligence (β = 0.198, P < 0.05). Muscular fitness was not related to overall cortical thickness. None of the three physical fitness components were related to surface area (p > 0.05). The associations of cardiorespiratory fitness and speed-agility with overall cortical thickness were mediated by fat mass index (56.86% & 62.28%, respectively). In conclusion, cardiorespiratory fitness and speed-agility, but not muscular fitness, are associated with overall cortical thickness, and in turn, thicker brain cortex is associated with higher intelligence in overweight/obese children. Yet, none of the three physical fitness components were related to surface area. Importantly, adiposity may hinder the benefits of cardiorespiratory fitness and speed-agility on cortical thickness. Understanding individual differences in brain morphology may have important implications for educators and policy makers who aim to determine policies and interventions to maximize academic learning and occupational success later in life.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)771-781
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2019


  • Brain
  • Cardiorespiratory fitness
  • Children
  • Cortical thickness
  • Muscular fitness
  • Overweight
  • Physical fitness
  • Speed-agility

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