By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Exercise enhances speed of response to external stimuli

by in Fitness & Wellbeing, Research.

Costa Rica's Salazar runs in the women's 3000m steeplechase final at the Central American Games in San Jose, Costa Rica on March 12, 2013

Costa Rica’s Salazar runs in the women’s 3000m steeplechase (REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate)

In a March 2013 study led by University of Illinois psychology professor Arthur Kramer, the brains of elite athletes were shown to take in and respond to new information faster than those of non-athletes. Past studies have shown that exercise  stimulates the formation of new brain cells associated with memory and learning and strengthens the connections between those cells. The areas of the brain that are stimulated through exercise are associated with memory and learning. Every time a muscle contracts and releases, it sends out chemicals such as interleukin growth factor-1 that travel into the brain.  A series of reactions then lead to the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which fuels almost all of the activities that lead to higher thought.

Dr. Kramer and his colleagues studied 87 top-ranked Brazilian volleyball players and 67 non-athletes. The athletes were faster at memory tests and at multi-tasking, faster to notice changes in their peripheral vision and to detect subtle differences in a scene than the non-athletes, and could more easily ignore irrelevant information. And results along the gender axis were interesting, as well: the study found that being an athlete minimizes differences in female and male cognitive responses. The female athletes were faster than their non-athletic counterparts at detecting scene changes and could more quickly pick out relevant details from a confusing background; their performance was comparable to that of male counterparts. (But cheer up, couch potatoes. Non-athletes outperformed in one task: the so-called stopping task. Participants were asked to type a “Z” or “/” key when they saw it on a computer screen — unless they heard a tone shortly after the character appeared, in which case they were not supposed to respond.) According to Dr. Kramer, more work needs to be done to ascertain “whether these abilities in the athletes were ‘born’ or ‘made'”.

The Kramer study adds to a growing body of evidence for the mental benefits of exercise. In a study published in October 2012,Dr. Alan J. Gow and colleagues from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland showed that exercise may be even more beneficial to ward against brain shrinkage with age than mental activity. An October 2011 study used a virtual reality street-crossing task to examine the abilities of collegiate athletes and non-athletes in terms of multitasking and speed-processing. The researchers found that athletes exhibited superior street crossing multitasking abilities possibly due an enhanced ability to process speed.

Studies expounding the benefits of exercise beyond the physical may get more people to jog, engage in sports or go to their local gym. And physicians and physical therapists caring for those with a compromised cognitve ability can better incorporate exercise for their care.