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Running Enhances Functional Brain Connectivity

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  • Fine motor control functions like playing an instrument or golf, alter the structure and function of brain.
  • New research shows that exercises like running that do not require precise motor control also affect the structure and function of the brain.
  • This connectivity is important for cognitive functions like planning and decision making.

Running Enhances Functional Brain Connectivity

The brains of runners' have greater functional connectivity compared to the brains of individuals who lead a sedentary lifestyle.

The study was led by researchers from University of Arizona (UA) and the results were was revealed through MRI scans.


Functional connectivity refers to connections between distinct areas and regions of the brain regions, including the frontal cortex. These connections are important for cognitive functions such as planning, decision-making and the ability to switch attention between tasks.

Researchers compared brain scans of young adult who were runners to those of young adults who did not engage in regular physical activity.

The study was co-designed by UA running expert David Raichlen, an associate professor of anthropology, along with UA psychology professor Gene Alexander, who studies brain aging and Alzheimer's disease as a member of the UA's Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute.

"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 lifespan that can impact what happens as you age, so it's important to understand what's happening in the brain at these younger ages." Raichlen added.

Comparing the MRI Scans of Runners with Non-runners

"One of the things that drove this collaboration was that there has been a recent proliferation of studies, over the last 15 years, that have shown that physical activity and exercise can have a beneficial impact on the brain, but most of that work has been in older adults," Raichlen said.

Researchers recruited young males belonging to the age group of 18-25 years, who had similar body mass index and educational levels. They then compared the MRI scans of young adult males who had not engaged in any kind of organized athletic activity for at least a year to those of cross country runners.

The resting state functional connectivity, is the activity that goes on in the brain while a person is awake but at rest and not engaging in any specific task. It was measured among participants.


Activities like playing a musical instrument, or those that require high levels of hand-eye coordination, such as playing golf require fine motor control. It can alter brain structure and function.

But more repetitive athletic activities like running, that that do not require as much precise motor control, could have a similar effect on the brain.

"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.

It is also important to consider neurodegenrative conditions like Alzheimer's disease which alters functional connectivity in aging adults.

"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," said Alexander, who also is a professor of neuroscience and physiological sciences. "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."


The findings lay the groundwork for researchers to better understand the influence of exercise on the brain connectivity, especially in young adults.

Additional research is needed to determine the change in cognitive functioning as a result of physical differences in brain connectivity.

The current findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.


  1. David Raichlen et al. Differences in Resting State Functional Connectivity between Young Adult Endurance Athletes and Healthy Controls. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience ; (2016) doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00610

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