brain activity

Physical Activity Is Linked To Better Brain Performance

André Gonçalves

What is the link between physical activity and brain functioning? Do sports improve brain performance? This is in any case what suggests a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated how important sports are for health. From the fight against obesity and cardiovascular diseases to the prevention of diabetes or musculoskeletal disorders… But there is one area that is less well known, also due to the complexity of this human organ: the link between physical activity and how our brain works.

However, a number of researchers have highlighted in recent years how brain health, performance and memory are likely to be correlated with physical activity and doing sports. According to a new study published in Scientific Reports by researchers of the University of Münster demonstrates, for instance, a correlation between the physical form of individuals and their cognitive performance.

Sports And Physical Endurance Related To Cognitive Brain Functions

brain physical activity

The researchers at the origin of the study sought to know if there could be a link between the physical form of an individual and the capacities of his brain. For this, they used a relatively large panel (more than 1200 people) of young and healthy individuals. 

They compared the physical endurance (measured by a very fast walking test) with their cognitive capacities (measuring the brain’s white matter integrity and the performance on some cognitive tests). Researchers then normalized the results by taking into account the variables that could affect the outcomes – such as the level of studies, sex, body mass index or blood pressure.

Specifically, their results showed that individuals who perform best on the physical test (walking the greatest possible distance in two minutes) also tend to have better results on cognitive tests and gray matter integrity tests. Therefore, a correlation between physical fitness and brain capacity can be assumed.

White Matter: The Link Between Sports And Brain Performance

According to the researchers, a possible explanation for the link between cognitive performance and physical performance would be to look for the white matter. The white matter serves as a sort of relay between the different parts of the brain: this is what makes it possible to transmit messages across neurotransmitters and ensure coordination between the different parts of the organ. 

However, it seems that being in better physical shape is linked to a better quality of the white matter. More and more studies have studied this link in recent years, showing there are obvious links between the integrity and structure of white matter and activity and fitness. 

For example, a study conducted in 2013 by Dutch researchers on nearly 400 individuals aged 50 to 85 years old showed a correlation between physical activity and white matter quality. More recently, a 2018  Beckman Institute study went even further by showing that children participating in certain physical activities saw the microstructure of the white matter improve. In summary: by a mechanism yet to be specified, physical activity seems to positively affect the quality of the white substance.

Sports And Physical Activity: The Key To Develop And Protect The Brain?

brain exercise

In the end, it may be that sport can be used to develop and protect the brain at any age in life. According to researchers at the University of Münster, their results suggest that “physical fitness and physical activity would have a beneficial and potentially protective effect on brain structure and cognitive performance.”

The study of the Beckman Institute concluded as to the importance of physical activity for the brain and for the cognitive development of children. Physical activity could thus eventually, and if these results are confirmed by further research, become a means of preventing certain degenerative pathologies and be used as a therapeutic method.

Image credits to hikers on Shutterstock, runners on Shutterstock and sports on Shutterstock

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