Runners may have elite brains, scientists suggest

TUCSON, Ariz. — Here’s a good reason to lace up the sneakers and head out for a run. People who take a daily jog might have superior brain connectivity, a recent study finds.

Researchers at the University of Arizona compared brain scans of young men who were cross country runners to those of young men who were not physically active for at least a year. They found that the runners had “enhanced connectivity” between various regions of the brain, specifically the area known as the fronto-parietal network (FPN), which helps manage executive functions, and areas of the brain that control cognitive functions and working memory.

The researchers conclude that high-endurance running requires the athletes to rely on “the combination of complex, sequential motor tasks, multi-tasking, working memory, and object recognition” and that the amount of time spent doing aerobic activity may alter and boost areas of the brain that control those tasks.

Previous studies have found that activities such as learning to play an instrument or playing sports that require more hand-eye coordination, such as golf or gymnastics, also alter various regions of the brain. But there hadn’t been much research on the effect of repetitive athletic activities that aren’t as demanding when it comes to motor skills.

The authors of this latest study believe that high-endurance exercise in young adults may play a significant role in how the brain ages and also defends itself against future diseases.

“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,” says study co-author Gene Alexander, who also is a professor of neuroscience and physiological sciences at Arizona, in a release. “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 study is published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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