According to the minds of science, those joggers you regularly (read: disdainfully) cross paths with actually reach a higher mental capacity than us normies. Show offs.
Like most normal people, the idea of a brisk run probably fills you with as much fear as it does disdain. You hear about the health benefits from your active-wear-wearing-colleagues, about the way the morning breeze feels as they whisk their way around the streets of their urban gymnasium, and how positive their outlook on life is, before they press you on your star sign.
But your abs of steel bearing co-workers may have yet another advantage over we stationary plebs: a more functionally connected brain.
MRI scans, undertaken by a team of researchers in a study at the University of Arizona, found that participants who ran regularly showed different regions of their brains more closely connected and “in sync” with each other than their non-active peers.
The findings were published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal, and may give a new look into combating cognitive decline later in life.
Anthropologist David Raichlen cited the limited nature of current studies on the effects of exercise on the brain as a driving force behind the research.
“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,” Raichlen said. “This question of what’s occurring in the brain at younger ages hasn’t really been explored in much depth.”
11 male cross-country runners had their brain scans compared with those from 11 males who had avoided exercise like the plague for more than a year. The two groups, from the same educational background, had similar BMI and were between the ages of 18 and 25.
The increase in cranial capability was not limited to the periods of physical activity, with the runners showing greater functional connectivity during resting state scans. During these scans, participants were not asked to perform explicit mental tasks.
The improved connectivity could be seen in areas like the frontal cortex, involved in planning, decision making and multitasking.
“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 ageing and disease.”
Similar connectivity has been found in previous research in those who play musical instruments, suggesting that the task of running engages the brain in the same way, even if running seems to require much less thought by comparison.
“These activities that people consider repetitive actually involve many complex cognitive functions – like planning and decision making – that may have effects on the brain,” Raichlen explained.
The impacts of improved functional connectivity on the way we think are still not fully understood, but it is proven that damage to the brain – such as that caused by stroke – causes a reduction in connectivity, leading to regions of the brain being more isolated.
This drop in functional connectivity has also been seen in older people, particularly those with conditions such as Alzheimer’s, and the research team believes that regular exercise may be a way to minimise this drop.
There is an asterisk to all of this, however. The narrow participant base has been acknowledged as problematic, with researchers saying larger and more diverse groups of people would be needed to further investigate any beneficial link between physical activity and functional connectivity.
And if your protein-sipping pals do start to get a bit of a complex hearing all this, you can quickly bring them back to earth; Raichlen points out that the findings don’t necessarily suggest that those who are athletic are more intelligent than we of the average bodies.
Though previous research has shown links between regular exercise and improved performance in certain mental tasks, this study leans more towards the benefits on a brain’s longevity than its ability.
“The areas of the brain where we saw more connectivity in runners are also the areas that are impacted as we age,” Raichlen said. “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 ageing and disease.”
It all does sound quite rosy and positive, until you remember the soul crushing process that is physical activity. You might consider it worth the benefits, but this young adult is still staying firmly planted and immobile.