RCSIsmj staff writer – Alexandra Mitcham

As we roll into 2017, many of us are resolving to lace up our runners in the hopes of making exercise a regular part of the daily grind. While many of the health benefits of running are well known, research recently published from the University of Arizona may have uncovered benefits of running outside of cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health.

Activities requiring fine motor skills, such as playing an instrument or drawing, have been demonstrated to be related to structural neurological changes associated with motor function, sensory and spatial awareness, and attentional processes.1-4 Other work has shown that engaging in endurance sport is related to enhanced white matter tracts and grey matter volume.5 However, the effects of aerobic exercise that do not require a high degree of motor control have only been limitedly explored in the context of connectivity.

A study conducted by Raichlen et al.,6 published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in November 2016, showed that endurance athletes have stronger neural connectivity between different regions of the brain related to cognition, memory, attention, and sensory function than non-athletes of the same demographic. It compared male distance runners and non-athletes aged 18-25 using Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fcMRI) to assess functional brain networks. The results showed increased connectivity in the frontalparietal network and the frontal cortex, related to memory and executive function. Improved connectivity between these regions may enhance an individual’s ability to shift attention between different tasks, plan, and make decisions.6, 7 The fcMRI also indicated stronger connectivity between the default mode network (a series of connections that are notably active at rest between the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and inferior parietal lobe) and the paracentral area (motor control), post-central area (somatosensory functions), and occipital cortex (visual association) in the athlete cohort. Interestingly, there also appeared to be a dose-response relationship between the frequency of activity and aerobic capacity and the strength of the aforementioned neural connections.

The researchers concluded that neural connectivity improves in response to cognitive demands of exercise, with lasting effects that persist throughout a person’s lifetime. Raichlen notes that “…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.”7 Improved cognition, memory, and attention can make completing daily tasks for the average individual more efficient and effective. It may also give athletes an edge on the competition; athletes have shown improved performance when utilizing attention focus (focusing on technique) rather than allowing their minds to wander.8 Improved neuroplasticity may also exert a protective effect against neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s.9

This research serves as a noteworthy reminder that the benefits of an active lifestyle manifest in both the present and future in ways that we are only beginning to understand, and provides an extra piece of motivation we may (definitely) need to get moving more often in the new year!

1. Gaser, Christian, and Gottfried Schlaug. “Brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians.” The Journal of Neuroscience 23, no. 27 (2003): 9240-9245.
2. Han, Ying, Hong Yang, Ya-Ting Lv, Chao-Zhe Zhu, Yong He, He-Han Tang, Qi-Yong Gong, Yue-Jia Luo, Yu-Feng Zang, and Qi Dong. “Gray matter density and white matter integrity in pianists’ brain: a combined structural and diffusion tensor MRI study.” Neuroscience letters 459, no. 1 (2009): 3-6.
3. Jäncke, Lutz. “The plastic human brain.” Restorative neurology and neuroscience 27, no. 5 (2009): 521-538.
4. Park, Denise C., and Patricia Reuter-Lorenz. “The adaptive brain: aging and neurocognitive scaffolding.” Annual review of psychology 60 (2009): 173.
5. Schlaffke, L., S. Lissek, M. Lenz, M. Brüne, G. Juckel, T. Hinrichs, P. Platen, M. Tegenthoff, and T. Schmidt-Wilcke. “Sports and brain morphology–a voxel-based morphometry study with endurance athletes and martial artists.” Neuroscience 259 (2014): 35-42.
6. Raichlen, David A., Pradyumna K. Bharadwaj, Megan C. Fitzhugh, Kari A. Haws, Gabrielle-Ann Torre, Theodore P. Trouard, and Gene E. Alexander. “Differences in Resting State Functional Connectivity between Young Adult Endurance Athletes and Healthy Controls.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 10 (2016).
7. Hannah Nichols. “Runners may have superior brain connectivity, study finds. Medical News Today. December 30, 2016.
8. Brick, Noel, Tadhg MacIntyre, and Mark Campbell. “Attentional focus in endurance activity: new paradigms and future directions.” International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology 7, no. 1 (2014): 106-134.
9. Rovio, Suvi, Ingemar KÃ¥reholt, Eeva-Liisa Helkala, Matti Viitanen, Bengt Winblad, Jaakko Tuomilehto, Hilkka Soininen, Aulikki Nissinen, and Miia Kivipelto. “Leisure-time physical activity at midlife and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.” The Lancet Neurology 4, no. 11 (2005): 705-711.