Yet another benefit to exercise, and this time it’s long distance running. A new study from the University of Arizona suggests that connectivity in the brain is better in people who participate in cross country or endurance runs than it is in those who are mostly sedentary. While it would see obvious that there are many benefits of regular exercise, even if it’s not as hard core as running dozens of miles a week, the benefits of cross country running to the brain were a surprise. Brain connectivity refers to how the regions of the brain communicate with each other and how messages are relayed around the brain.
The team at the University of Arizona researchers used that gold standard of brain research, MRI scans, of two groups. One group was comprised of young adults who regularly engaged in high mile cross country running and their couch potato cohorts who did not exercise at much at all. MRI scans can pick up the the actuall electrical connectivity of the brain and show exactly where connections are being made and networks are forming. One key area that did show up as more functional in the runners was the frontal cortex. This part of the brain is decision central, responsible for planning, choosing actions and reactions and switching between different tasks.
The research was just about the connections made in the brain, the pathways followed and the networks of how the brain processes information. The study did not address whether the increased amount of connectivity was responsible for higher levels of cognition and intelligence, but it was a significant study in that it drew a direct connection to a specific form of exercise and a specific brain function. While there is much research already published about the brain benefits of various kinds of exercise, the link found in this study goes a long way in finding out more about the neurological benefits of exercise.
The study was a collaboration between UA associate professor Davide Raichlen, a running expert and his colleague Gene Alexander, a psychology professor at the University who studies brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease at the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at UA. Having both professors involved, on either end of the topics, running and the brain, made the study better designed and likely contributed to the accuracy of the results.
In a press release, Professor Raichlen said, "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. This question of what's occurring in the brain at younger ages hasn't really been explored in much depth, and it's important. 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."
The two groups of study volunteers were all similar in age (18-25), had similar body mass indices and comparable levels of education. The main difference was their level of activity. The fact that the brain differences were in decision-making and planning---both areas that decline as we age and in dementia patients---was a key finding. Raichlen and Alexander hope that learning what works in younger adults can point the way to prevention and protection as the population ages. Check out the video for more information on the connection between the brain and long-distance running.