The cognitive benefits of physical fitness are not limited simply to mood improvement, according to a new study by the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology. In fact, improving one's fitness can lead to better brain structure and brain function, particularly in young adults.
For the study, approximately 1,200 young adults with an average age of 30 were subjected to brain scans that evaluated memory, judgment, reasoning and clarity of thought. They were also subjected to a speed-walking test that measured cardio fitness levels.
The researchers found that the participants who walked faster and farther during the cardio test exhibited better cognitive function on the brain scans. Additionally, the fitter, sharper participants also showed superior structural integrity of the white matter in their brains, which is associated with improved speed and quality of nerve connections.
"It surprised us to see that, even in a young population, cognitive performance decreases as fitness levels drop," lead study author Dr. Jonathan Repple, a member of the University Hospital in Muenster, Germany, said in a media release. “We knew how this might be important in an elderly population which does not necessarily have good health, but to see this happening in 30-year-olds is surprising. This leads us to believe that a basic level of fitness seems to be a preventable risk factor for brain health.”
In June, research published by Yale University and the University of Oxford also found that exercise in and of itself makes people happier than earning more money.
"This is an important cross-sectional study demonstrating a robust correlation between physical health and cognitive functioning in a large cohort of healthy young adults,” Peter Falkai, a professor at University Clinic, Munich, Germany, said in the release. “This correlation was backed by changes in the white matter status of the brain supporting the notion that better macro-connectivity is related to better brain functioning. It stresses the importance of physical activity at all stages of life, and as preliminary recent evidence suggests, one can start improving physical health even in later life even if one has never trained before. These findings, however, need to be replicated in longitudinal studies and translated for the use in mental illness."