Why a Runner’s Brain Is ‘More Connected’ Than Others


A runner’s brain has a leg up over the minds of those who don’t regularly run, a new study suggests.

Led by University of Arizona researchers, the study found that MRI scans reveal endurance runners’ brains have greater functional connectivity than the brains of those who are more inactive. The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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David Raichlen, an associate professor of anthropology at UA and running expert, said the research focused on young adults instead of older adults. Most studies involving the benefits of physical activity and exercise on the brain have observed older adults, Raichlen said in a press release.

“This question of what’s occurring in the brain at younger ages hasn’t really been explored in much depth, and it’s important,” he said. “Not only are we interested in what’s going on in the brains of young adults, but we know that there are things that you do across your life span that can impact what happens as you age, so it’s important to understand what’s happening in the brain at these younger ages.”

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Raichlen partnered with Gene Alexander, a psychology professor at UA who studies brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease. With their colleagues, the two compared MRI scans of a group of male cross country runners to the scans of young adult males who hadn’t participated in any organized athletic activity for at least a year.

The scans measured resting state functional connectivity, or what happens within the brain while participants are awake but not engaged with any specific task. The study supports the idea that repetitive athletic activities could have a similar effect to activities that require fine motor control, like playing an instrument.

“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 said.

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The study doesn’t just suggest the impact that running as a particular form of exercise might have on the brain – it could change the way scientists approach an older brain. Since brain connectivity seems to be altered in aging adults, especially with those who have Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases, it could be an important measure to consider, Alexander said.

“One of the key questions that these results raise is whether what we’re seeing in young adults — in terms of the connectivity differences — imparts some benefit later in life,” he said. “The areas of the brain where we saw more connectivity in runners are also the areas that are impacted as we age, 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 aging and disease.”

What researchers learn from young adult minds could help prevent age-related cognitive decline later on, he said. Participants were ages 18 to 25 with comparable body mass index and educational levels.