A new study has found that runners’ brains, compared to non-runners, show greater connections. What does this mean exactly? The researchers found that runners had greater functional connectivity compared to those who lived more sedentary lives.
The researchers compared brain scans of cross country runners to scans of young adults who did not partake in regular physical activity. The runners showed overall greater functional connectivity in several different areas of the brain which could boost problem-solving, decision making, and switching attention between tasks.
The researchers suggest that these findings create groundwork for future studies to test whether or not frequent running or physical activity could improve cognitive function.
University of Arizona running expert David Raichlen explained, “One of the things that drove this collaboration was that there has been a recent proliferation of studies, over the last 15 years, that have shown that physical activity and exercise can have a beneficial impact on the brain, but most of that work has been in older adults. This question of what’s occurring in the brain at younger ages hasn’t really been explored in much depth, and it’s important. Not only are we interested in what’s going on in the brains of young adults, but we know that there are things that you do across your lifespan that can impact what happens as you age, so it’s important to understand what’s happening in the brain at these younger ages.”
Although there have been numerous studies on how certain activities can improve certain functions there is lack of evidence to show if repetitive physical activity that doesn’t require fine motor skills can improve brain function. “These activities that people consider repetitive actually involve many complex cognitive functions — like planning and decision-making — that may have effects on the brain,” added Raichlen.
It’s important to uncover what impacts the brains of young adults as this could help prevent cognitive diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in the future. If future studies reveal that running, and other exercise, can improve and prevent dementia then it could be a more widely recommended approach to prevent it.
Co-researcher Gene Alexander concluded, “One of the key questions that these results raise is whether what we’re seeing in young adults — in terms of the connectivity differences — imparts some benefit later in life. The areas of the brain where we saw more connectivity in runners are also the areas that are impacted as we age, so it really raises the question of whether being active as a young adult could be potentially beneficial and perhaps afford some resilience against the effects of aging and disease.”