Running may appear to be a straightforward and even mindless activity, but a new Frontiers in Human Neuroscience study has uncovered correlations between this form of exercise and improved cognitive function.
Researchers from the University of Arizona used MRI technology to compare the brain activity of 11 collegiate distance runners with those of 11 age-matched non-exercisers. (All of the study participants were men because the researchers were uncertain about the menstrual cycle’s effects on brain activity.)
Six-minute-long scans showed the runners had greater activity in the areas of “planning, inhibition, monitoring, attentional switching and multi-tasking and motor control.”
Furthermore, the scans found that runners' brains facilitated greater high-level thought, such as memories, processing and decision-making. The runners' brains also were more concentrated, whereas the non-exercisers' brains were more likely to wander and lose focus.
Study co-author Gene E. Alexander told the New York Times he believes running is “not such a simple activity after all,” and instead seems to initiate a kind of mobile math puzzle.
“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,” Alexander told the Times.
The researchers identified positive associations with running, such as on-the-go decisions involving speed and route choice, that equate to a mental workout.
The study states: “[M]ovement, especially at high speeds, taxes not only motor control, but can also engage executive functions, spatial navigation, and memory abilities. Over time, these linked cognitive demands may have beneficial effects on brain structure and function. In fact, recent studies have shown that highly fit and competitive young adult athletes perform better on tests of executive function and processing speed in non-sport specific cognitive tasks, suggesting exercise-based improvements may be generalizable to cognitive demands during daily life.”
The researchers concluded further studies are required to determine how sedentary activity even in athletes relates to cognitive changes, specifically long-term neurodegenerative disease. Additionally, they cited their desire for a larger sample size, including women.