BigThink's piece asking if running is the sport for smart people (written by Robby Berman) will likely show up in my feeds more than a few times:
Some people look to it as a workout that it gives you time to think, away from distractions. Others just love running. And, of course, many runners run with the intention of exercising their bodies. A new study, though, suggests that this seemingly simple activity may also exercise the brain in surprising ways.
A just-published study by researchers at the University of Arizona in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience reveals that runners appear to have an exceptionally high amount of connectivity between areas of the brain associated with higher-level thinking, including those dealing with multitasking and concentration. They also showed less connectivity, or "anti-correlation" -- in the brain's areas associated with daydreaming and unfocused thought.
Berman notes that "One of the study's authors, Gene E. Alexander, a professor of psychology, neurology and physical sciences, spoke about the array of mental skills running engages to the New York Times:
"It requires complex navigational skills plus an ability to plan, monitor and respond to the environment, juggle memories of past runs and current conditions, and also continue with all of the sequential motor activities of running, which are, themselves, very complicated."
Exercising these skills might have long-term benefits:
The researchers' final conclusion is that the enhanced neuroplasticity they saw in younger athletes may have implications for older adults, and "should be investigated in relation to brain aging and the potential to reduce vulnerability to cognitive aging and the risk for neurodegenerative disease," especially since there's already evidence that supports the idea of exercise as a tool for supporting and prolonging mental acuity in the elderly.
I can definitely get behind Berman's closing comment: "Want to improve your mind? Lace up, warm up, and go."
The study ("Differences in Resting State Functional Connectivity between Young Adult Endurance Athletes and Healthy Controls") looks at numerous other research "suggest[ing] that locomotion in general, and high-speed locomotion specifically, engages several cognitive domains in ways that, over time, may alter brain structure, function, and connectivity:"
We hypothesized that individuals who engage in highly intense aerobic exercise (i.e., competitive endurance cross-country running) would differ in resting state functional connectivity in these networks compared with more sedentary, non-athlete controls due to the intense demands on executive functions that are intrinsically linked with such motor activities.
"Our results show, for the first time," write the study authors, "clear differences in resting state functional connectivity between expert endurance athletes and healthy age-matched non-athletes:"
These differences may arise in response to the cognitive demands of long distance running combined with aerobic exercise. It is possible that differences in resting state fcMRI activity may improve aerobic athletic performance by allowing more efficient execution of cognitive and motor demands during highly intense activity.
They, too, stress the long-term effects:
Lifelong physical activity may be an important element of successful aging and strengthened resting state connectivity could reflect a mechanism for the protective effects of physical activity. Together, our findings suggest that more detailed investigations of exercise-induced neuroplasticity in young adults may help us better understand how lifelong healthy behaviors can improve quality of life in older adults.