Running Ahead of the Clock: Neurological Benefits of Endurance Running 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!
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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.
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