Running found to improve brain function

Researchers from the University of Arizona compared the brain scans of young male cross country runners to those who haven’t engaged in regular physical activity for at least a year. Participants were aged 18-25 and had comparable body mass index and educational levels.

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The runners, overall, showed greater functional connectivity – or connections between distinct brain regions – within several areas of the brain, including the frontal cortex, which is important for cognitive functions such as planning, decision-making and the ability to switch attention between tasks.

The study was designed by UA running expert David Raichlen, an associate professor of anthropology, and 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.

“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,” said co author David Raichlen associate professor of anthropology

“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.”

“These activities that people consider repetitive actually involve many complex cognitive functions — like planning and decision-making — that may have effects on the brain.” 

Since functional connectivity often appears to be altered in aging adults, and particularly in those with Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases, it’s an important measure to consider, Alexander said. And what researchers learn from the brains of young adults could have implications for the possible prevention of 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,” said Alexander. “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.”

These findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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