COPENHAGEN, Denmark — It’s no secret that exercise can be beneficial from a psychological perspective. A session at the gym or jog around the neighborhood can help us clear our mind, reset our thoughts, and improve our mood. Now, a team of German scientists have discovered that keeping oneself physically fit is also associated with better brain structure and functioning in young adults.
The research team believe their findings indicate that if a person can improve their physical fitness, it may lead to improved cognitive ability, including elevated memory retention and superior problem solving.
There have been a number of previous studies that concluded exercise is beneficial for the brain, but most of that research failed to account for numerous underlying variables that may have skewed their findings. Examples of such variables include study participants’ body weights, blood glucose levels, age, and education. Furthermore, most of these studies focused on the effect exercise has on mood and behavior, not brain structure and mental functioning.
Once researchers decided they wanted to investigate the connection between exercise and brain functioning, they opted to use a publicly accessible database of 1,206 MRI scans. These scans were taken from the Human Connectome Project, a volunteer program in which people contributed their MRIs to a database for the purpose of scientific research. The average volunteer age was 30 years old.
All of the MRI volunteers also underwent some additional testing; each person was asked to walk as far as they could within two minutes, and each distance was recorded. Then, each person also took a series of cognitive tests designed to measure memory, reasoning, sharpness, and judgment.
“The great strength of this work is the size of the database. Normally when you are dealing with MRI work, a sample of 30 is pretty good, but the existence of this large MRI database allowed us to eliminate possibly misleading factors, and strengthened the analysis considerably,” comments team leader Dr. Jonathan Repple, of University Hospital Muenster, Germany, in a release.
Researchers determined that young, healthy adults who were able to walk the farthest distances within two minutes scored the highest on the cognitive performance tests. It was also noted that the fittest participants displayed better structural integrity of white matter in their brains; white matter helps improve the speed and quality of interconnecting nerves in the brain.
“It surprised us to see that even in a young population cognitive performance decreases as fitness levels drops. We knew how this might be important in an elderly population which does not necessarily have good health, but to see this happening in 30 year olds is surprising. This leads us to believe that a basic level of fitness seems to be a preventable risk factor for brain health,” Dr. Repple continues.
Moving forward, the research team want to continue investigating the effects of physical fitness on brain functioning. More specifically, they would like to examine changes in brain structure and performance among people who were unfit but then got themselves into better shape.
“This type of study raises an important question. We see that fitter people have better brain health, so we now need to ask whether actually making people fitter will improve their brain health. Finding this out is our next step. There are some trials which point in that direction, but if we can prove this using such a large database, this would be very significant”. Dr. Repple concludes.
The study was presented at the 2019 ECNP Congress in Copenhagen.