Even if you’re not a runner (yet), you’ll find that running is more interesting than it appears to be. Many runners enjoy the minimalism of the sport of running. There are no complicated strategies or skills to master like there are for activities such as competitive swimming and cycling. You don’t need a gym membership or an expensive racing bike. All you need are a pair of running sneakers and the open road.
Or so it seems.
A research group at the University of Arizona dug a little deeper into this seamlessly simple sport. They conducted the first functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI) study on young, highly fit runners and non-runners. All subjects were roughly the same age. They found that running requires a surprisingly high level of cognitive skill, particularly if you’re running fast or on a challenging trail.
The researchers compared the brain scans of 11 college-aged distance runners with 11 non-runners of the same age. The runners were capable of completing a 5 km race in 16.5 minutes, while the non-runners covered the same distance in about 24 minutes. The runners also reported engaging in more consistent daily physical activity. They found significant differences between the runners and the non-runners, most notably in brain areas that reflect cognitive abilities.
They found through these fcMRIs that the runners had “clear differences in resting state functional connectivity”. They believe that the differences might extend to “activities that are unrelated to sports”. In other words: running could make you smarter. “Our study suggests that high levels of aerobic exercise, like endurance running, might benefit brain function, particularly complex cognitive abilities like planning, switching between tasks, and multitasking,” said Gene Alexander, Ph.D., director of the University of Arizona’s Brain Imaging, Behavior, and Aging Lab. They even projected from this study that running could boost brain function to a high enough level in midlife and that the benefits might continue into old age when brain-related diseases, such as cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s, can impact our lives.
The findings were published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience where they stated, “This work shows for the first time that we can observe differences in functional connectivity in the brains of young adult endurance runners.” Alexander also said, “A growing body of research has suggested that aerobically challenging exercise can enhance brain structure and function in older adults. We wanted to see if we could detect brain differences in highly active young adults compared to those who don’t engage in regular exercise, and we did.”
The executive functions that they were able to compare included the ability to plan, to switch from one task to another, and to solve complex problems. This is why this study is so interesting. Does running, itself, promote these cognitive benefit? Or is it physical activity and cardiovascular conditioning? We’ll find out with consequent studies in the future. For now, let’s all go for a run and let our brains thrive!