The Activity That Builds Brain Connectivity

Running Builds Brain ConnectivityIn study after study, science repeatedly confirms that sports, exercise, and physical activity are good for the brain.

We’ve also seen how specific physical activities can offer additional benefits to the brain:

Physical activity is also linked to better executive functioning (vital for success in life). What makes it even more effective, is if we make it cognitively-engaging. Exercises defined to be cognitively-engaging include:

  • traditional martial arts that emphasise self-control, discipline, and character development
  • exercise plus mindfulness, e.g. yoga
  • exercise that requires strategy and quick decision making, e.g. soccer, tennis, basketball

The conclusion seemed pretty straightforward. If you want to do something good for your brain, just exercise. If you want to do more for your brain, choose physical activities that require extra brain work. It led me to believe that repetitive physical activities, such as running, were somehow inferior. A new study reveals that this may be an oversimplification.

Running Builds Brain Connectivity

Runners show greater connectivity between vital parts of the brain than non-runners. Stronger connections are seen in areas important for decision-making, planning and controlling attention. – Psyblog

On the surface, it seems like activities such as running and cycling are repetitive and fairly mindless. The reality is that they may involve more complex cognitive function than previously believed.

Although generally considered an automated repetitive task, locomotion, especially at an elite level, likely engages multiple cognitive actions including planning, inhibition, monitoring, attentional switching and multi-tasking, and motor control. – Raichlen et al., 2016

So what kind of running are we looking at? This study suggests that there is a relationship between endurance running and brain connectivity.

High intensity aerobic activity that requires sustained, repetitive locomotor and navigational skills may stress cognitive domains in ways that lead to altered brain connectivity.- Raichlen et al., 2016

And if running is good for brain connectivity, perhaps the same may be said for other repetitive activities, such as cycling, swimming, and rowing.

How Much Running Builds Brain Connectivity?

While it’s still early days for a study like this, we should start somewhere. Since there are no recommendations from the study, we’re taking the advice from the CDC. They recommend 60 or more minutes of physical activity each day, including activities such as brisk walking or running. Of that recommendation, we should be targeting to run or do some other high-intensity physical activity at least 3 days a week.