Hillman Seeks to Understand Exercise-Cognition Links

Charles Hillman of Beckman's Human Perception and Performance group is shown in his Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory at Freer Hall.
Charles Hillman of Beckman's Human Perception and Performance group is shown in his Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory at Freer Hall.

Beckman Institute researcher Charles Hillman is following a unique and important research line with his studies of the effects of exercise and other health behaviors on cognition and the brain in preadolescent children.

Charles Hillman has become internationally known for his research into the relation of exercise to cognition and the brain in preadolescent children. The Beckman Institute researcher also happens to love sports, so it isn’t surprising that physical activity – whether in the forms of exercise or sports – is a pillar of both his personal and professional lives.

“Academically I was always interested in psychology and biology, and personally I’ve always been interested in sports,” said Hillman, who is a member of Beckman’s Human Perception and Performance group. “I played a lot of sports as a kid, and I’m a diehard Red Sox fan, and Celtics, and Bruins, and Miami Hurricanes. 

“If you don’t love sports, you don’t put your kid in it at 15 months, right? So it’s sort of marrying my personal life with my work life.”

Hillman said his son was on skates just a few weeks after learning how to walk and now at age 8 plays both baseball and hockey, with dad as a team coach. Exercise and fitness are not just topics Hillman researches; he believes deeply in an active lifestyle and is passing that perspective – as well as his passions for the venerable Boston baseball team, hockey, and other sports and teams – on to his son.   

“It’s a privilege to be part of Red Sox nation,” Hillman said with a smile. “I love sports, I played sports as a kid and I play sports as an adult. Every chance I get I go to the gym, lift weights, play hockey, play softball, whatever it is I can to do. I can’t sit at my desk for my whole life. I just want give my kid the same.”

Hillman is an Associate Professor in the University of Illinois departments of Kinesiology and Community Health, and Psychology. He majored in Psychology at Miami of Florida and earned a master’s in Exercise and Sports Psychology at the University of Florida. He also worked in a clinical psychophysiology lab, later earning a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland in Kinesiology with a focus on cognitive motor behavior.

“As I got into the field I got interested in exercise and health and that’s why I went to Maryland, to work with a guy who studies psychophysiology and exercise behavior,” Hillman said.

It was during this time that Hillman met Beckman Institute Director Art Kramer, who encouraged him to come to Illinois.

“He came through my advisor’s lab when I was at Maryland and gave a talk, and so we stayed in touch,” Hillman said. “Art is really good at finding young people to nurture, and I was fortunate enough to be one of those people.

“I wasn’t one of those obvious people to pick because I didn’t take this straight and narrow path of getting a degree in psychology and working in the department. I basically married a couple different areas together and Art being an innovative guy saw what I was interested in, and he felt that he could collaborate with me.”

Hillman came to Illinois and Beckman in 2000 for his first faculty positions and has been here ever since. He began collaborating with Kramer and Beckman colleague Edward McAuley on research topics involving the effects of exercise and fitness training on cognition and the brain in older adults.

“Somewhere along the lines I began to notice, about when my son was born eight years ago, that kids are not much healthier,” Hillman said. “You always hear about the epidemic of obesity and it struck me one day, why wait until someone is 60 to intervene, why not intervene at 6 if we can? With that, I ran my first study on children and found that the effects were even larger than they were in adults.

“That got me wondering about these ideas like cognitive reserve, or the idea that if you can make someone healthier at the onset, maybe that they won’t slip as far, and then are able to maintain cognitive health for a longer period of time.”

Hillman’s research is based in the Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory he directs in Freer Hall. The lab has approximately 2,500 square feet of experimental and office spaces and is equipped with a wide assortment of instruments involved in psychophysiological measurements. The lab has a research mission of studying “the relationship between physical activity and cognitive health across the lifespan” by “examining the relationship between exercise behavior and cognition associated with improved health and effective functioning.”

As a nation, we need to be more active, we need to teach the next generation to be more active, and we need to find ways to build as much physical activity into our lives as possible.
– Charles Hillman

Hillman said almost all of his research these days is focused on the fairly unique topic of preadolescent fitness, exercise, and their effects on cognition and the brain. “I’m really one of the first people to do this.”

With the recent attention on childhood obesity in medicine and in the media, Hillman has often been sought out by school officials wanting to increase exercise programs and by national media such as CNN, the New York Times, and Good Morning America for his advice and insight.  

“There is all kinds of data out there that children who are overweight perform more poorly on standardized tests, are more likely to be absent from school, and are more likely to have emotional disorders,” Hillman said. “This is clearly all tied together.

“We were more healthful as a nation about 20 to 30 years ago. In generations before mine, people were preparing for the military. Now, an alarmingly high percentage is not fit for military duty. There were four TV stations when I was a kid, and there was pong, and none of that interested me. My son is being raised the way we were raised. He gets a half hour of TV a night. The rest of the time is spent being physically active; outside or inside it doesn’t matter.”

 Hillman and his collaborators have shown, in results published in journals such as Nature Reviews Neuroscience and Neuroscience, the beneficial effects of fitness training and exercise on cognition. Hillman uses measures such as Electroencephalography (EEG) and Event-related Potentials (ERPs) in his lab, which also features a room for parents and siblings of the child test subjects in which they can play or watch the experiments in progress.

“We weren’t sure if a 9-year-old kid could walk for 20 minutes on a treadmill but they could,” Hillman said. “So these kids come into the lab and one day they exercise for 20 minutes on a treadmill and then sit quietly for 20 minutes another day. These two conditions are randomized and counterbalanced so we didn’t have any learning effects.”

An electrode cap is then placed on the head of the test subjects and they perform an attention task, followed by a standardized achievement test. One topic Hillman has been studying is the effects of a single bout of exercise on cognition, including test performance.

“What we found was that following the bout of exercise, they had a potential in the brain called the P3 that is related to the allocation of attentional resources, or how well they can attend to stimuli in the environment, and we found that following exercise it got larger relative to rest,” Hillman said. “They perform better on cognitive tests but especially in the conditions that were more difficult, that required more attention, they performed better. When we took the electric cap off their head, we also found that they also performed better on the academic achievement tests.

“So as you can see, we took it from the brain to behavior to scholastic achievement and showed that, following that bout of exercise, there’s a transient benefit to cognition that lasts about one hour. But beyond that hour we know that it definitely fades away. They could use it in schools maybe before test taking or before learning, and maybe maximize the benefits to the child.”

Hillman also started a chronic intervention program in his lab called Fitkids.

“The reason why I got involved in intervention was simply because we want the most definitive evidence we can find to support our work,” he said. “Fitkids is a chronic intervention where they exercise for nine months at a time and that allows us to look at the pre and post difference over the course of one school year.

“These kids that are coming into our lab, 65% of them are in the lowest three percent for fitness. We aim to improve their lives and, as a whole, their cohorts. As a nation, we need to be more active, we need to teach the next generation to be more active, and we need to find ways to build as much physical activity into our lives as possible. If we do that we can fight the obesity battle and be more healthful as a nation.”

Hillman said that he often hears that people don’t want to exercise, play sports, or just be more active.  

People tell me this all the time: ‘Well, I don’t like running on a treadmill, so I don’t exercise’, but that’s crazy,” he said. “I don’t like running on a treadmill and I don’t like riding bikes. But there’s something for everyone, be it walking or rollerblading, hiking, rowing, climbing; there is something for everyone.

“So if my son doesn’t like baseball or he doesn’t like hockey (God forbid) and if he decides to run cross country or be a swimmer. I’ll support him every step of the way. I just want him to be healthy.”