Runners’ brains have greater ‘functional connectivity’ than those of more sedentary people, according to research at the University of Arizona.
MRI scans reveal that the brains of endurance runners, when compared with those who don’t engage in regular physical activity, have stronger connections between distinct regions.
During the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, MRI scans of a group of male cross-country runners were compared with scans of young men who hadn’t engaged in any kind of organised athletic activity for at least a year.
The scans measured resting state functional connectivity, or what goes on in the brain while participants are awake but at physical rest.
The researchers were able to establish a physical difference — they found more connectivity in areas of the brain that helped with working memory, decision-making and attention.
The researchers say that more tests are needed to confirm that these differences in brain connectivity result in differences in cognitive function.
David Raichlen, a running expert who co-designed the study, 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,’ he said.
‘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.’
This study uses ‘resting state functional connectivity’, measured by a scan, as a marker of increased brain function. However, it does not comment on how this actually affects cognitive capabilities, and more research would need to be done to establish this. Additionally, this finding may not be specific to running, as the groups were either runners or people who had engaged in no organised athletic activity for at least a year.