There is an increasing number of studies that explore the connection between exercise and the brain. These studies have revealed some fascinating connections, including a reduction in dementia risk, the relief of depressive symptoms, better sleep, and more.
The evidence suggests that physical activity boosts cognitive performance in people of all ages. Even in patients with cognitive impairments, exercise seems to help boost brain performance. Some studies even show differences in the physical structure of the brain that can be attributed to cardiovascular fitness.
Despite a growing body of research, many questions about how the brain and fitness are related remain. Researchers at the University Hospital Munster in Germany hoped to fill some of the gaps. In their experiment, scientists wanted to account for as many confounding variables as possible. Additionally, they sought to understand if fitness had an influence on the brain's white matter and impacted cognitive ability in that way. White matter sends messages throughout the brain and coordinates brain communication.
For the study, researchers collected data from the Human Connectome Project. The data included brain scans from 1,206 adults. The average age of the participants was 28.8. These participants were asked to complete a walking test to measure their cardiovascular fitness levels. The test required that study subjects walk as quickly as possible for two minutes while researchers noted the distance.
In addition to the fitness test, participants completed a series of cognitive tests. These tests measured sharpness, reasoning, memory, and other parameters. What researchers found was a correlation between how well someone did on the cognitive test and the test of cardiovascular fitness. The difference is significant even after controlling for factors ranging from body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure (BP) to education level and sex.
There were also notable improvements to the structure of the white matter itself, indicating a relationship between white matter structure and physical fitness.
The findings are important as they indicate that cardiovascular fitness may be a means of protecting or enhancing brain health.
The above Ted Talk goes into detail about some of the ways exercise is known to benefit brain health.