Running won’t help you lose weight; weights will. This idea has become hugely popular over the last few years. However, a new study presented at the 2019 ECNP Congress in Copenhagen has shown that – if you want to maintain (or increase) your cognitive abilities – you’d better persist with that bloody treadmill.
While it’s no secret that exercise can help clear your mind and improve your mood, it has never been conclusively linked to boosting your brainpower. That may now be set to change after a group of German scientists have just discovered that keeping yourself physically fit is also associated with better brain structure and functioning in young adults.
The research team believe their findings suggest that if you improve your physical fitness, it may enhance your working memory and give your better problem-solving abilities. Published in the Nature Research journal, the scientists set out to build upon the existing literature which – up until now – has focussed on the effect exercise has on mood and behaviour, not brain structure and mental functioning.
To do this, the researchers used a publicly accessible database of 1,206 MRI scans, taken from the Human Connectome Project, a volunteer program in which people contributed their MRIs to a database for the purpose of scientific research, and of which the average volunteer age was 30-years-old.
To counteract variables previous studies have failed to take into account, the researchers tested MRI volunteers for their existing physical fitness, 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,” said team leader Dr Jonathan Repple, of University Hospital Muenster, Germany.
The first significant finding was that researchers found young, healthy adults who were able to walk the farthest distances within two minutes scored the highest on the cognitive performance tests. Adding to this, the fittest participants also displayed better structural integrity of white matter (a substance which helps improve the speed and quality of interconnecting cerebral nerves).
“It surprised us to see that even in a young population cognitive performance decreases as fitness levels drops,” Dr Repple said. “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.”
As reported by Study Finds, “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.”
Or, as Dr Repple puts it, “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”.