There may be more benefits to going for a run other than the well-documented heart and other physical benefits.
Researchers at the University of Arizona have concluded that MRI scans reveal that endurance runners’ brains have greater functional connectivity than the brains of more sedentary people.
The researchers compared the brain scans of 18 to 25-year-old young adult cross-country runners to young adults with comparable body mass index and educational levels who do not partake in regular physical activity.
The scans measured resting state functional connectivity—what goes on in the brain while participants are awake but at rest, not engaging in any specific task.
In the study the runners overall showed greater function connectivity—connections between distinct brain regions—within several areas of the brain, including the frontal cortex, where cognitive functions like planning, decision-making and the ability to switch attention between tasks occur.
David Raichlen, an associate professor of anthropology and running expert at UA, explained the genesis of the study.
“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,” Raichlen said in a statement.
“This question of what’s occurring in the brain at younger ages hasn’t really been explored in much depth, and it’s important,” he added. “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.”
Raichlen co-designed the study with UA psychology professor Gene Alexander, who studies brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease as a member of the UA’s Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute.
Previous studies have shown that activities that require fine motor control like playing a musical instrument or that require high levels of hand-eye coordination like playing golf can alter brain structure and function.
However, there are fewer studies that have looked at the effects of more repetitive athletic activities that have looked at the impact of more repetitive athletic activities that don’t require as much precise motor control like running.
“These activities that people consider repetitive actually involve many complex cognitive functions—like planning and decision-making—that may have effects on the brain,” Raichlen said.
Functional connectivity is often altered in aging adults, particularly in those with Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases. The researchers may be able to learn from the brains of young adults in implementing ways to prevent age-related cognitive decline later on.
“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,” Alexander said. “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.”
The research team will now conduct additional research to determine whether the physical differences in brain connectivity result in differences in cognitive functioning. The current findings help lay the groundwork for researchers to better understand how exercise affects the brain, particularly in young adults.
Co-authors on the paper include Theodore Trouard, UA professor of biomedical engineering and medical imaging; Pradyumna Bharadwaj, research assistant in the UA Department of Psychology; and UA alumni Megan C. Fitzhugh, Kari. A. Haws and Gabrielle-Ann Torre.
The study was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.