Fitter Adults Have Fitter Brains

“Fitness linked to better cognitive performance and healthy white matter in brain”


In a large study, scientists have shown that physical fitness is associated with better brain structure and brain functioning in young adults.

This opens the possibility that increasing fitness levels may lead to improved cognitive ability, such as memory and problem solving (as well as improved structural changes in the brain).

It stresses the importance of physical activity at all stages of life. One can start improving physical health even in later life even if one has never trained before.  Professor Peter Falkai

Scientists have previously shown that “exercise is good for the brain,” but most studies have not controlled for underlying causes which might give distorted results eg body weight, blood glucose levels, education status, age and other factors.

In addition, studies have rarely looked at fitness in relations to both brain structure and mental functioning.

German scientists used a publicly available database of 1206 MRI brain scans from the Human Connectome Project. The volunteers (average age 30 years old) underwent some additional testing.

The first test was a “two-minute walking test,” where each person was asked to walk as fast as possible for 2 minutes and the distance was then measured. The volunteers then underwent a series of cognitive tests, to measure such things as memory, sharpness, judgement and reasoning.

The large MRI database allowed the scientists to eliminate possibly misleading factors and strengthened the analysis considerably.

The tests revealed: Better performance on a 2-minute walking test in young healthy adults is associated with better cognitive performance and with structural integrity of the white matter in the brain (healthy white matter is known to improve the speed and quality of nerve connections in the brain).

What was surprising that even in a young population cognitive performance decreased as fitness levels dropped. While this might be important in an elderly population which does not necessarily have good health, to see this happening in 30 year olds was surprising. Hence a basic level of fitness seems to be a preventable risk factor for brain health.

This study raised an important question: If fitter people have better brain health, does making people fitter improve their brain health? 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. Dr Jonathan Repple

Source: White matter microstructure mediates the association between physical ftness and cognition in healthy, young adults 

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