The researchers from the University of Munster in Germany, who tested mostly 30-year-olds, said that these findings further strengthen the role of physical fitness in positive brain health outcomes.
“This leads us to believe that a basic level of fitness seems to be a preventable risk factor for brain health,” said Dr. Jonathan Repple, one of the authors of the study.
The current study examined the relationship between physical fitness, white matter microstructure and various cognitive domains. Researchers drew data from the Human Connectome Project, which provided a compilation of neural data including MRI brain scans of 1,206 healthy adults with a mean age of about 29.
Some of these participants also went through other kinds of tests. A total of 1,204 had a walking test where they walked as fast as they could for two minutes. Meanwhile, 1,187 participants did cognitive tests that measured memory, reasoning, sharpness and judgment among other parameters.
The team noted the distance traveled and their scores in the cognitive tests. They found that volunteers who did better in the two-minute walking test also performed significantly better in all but one of the cognitive tasks. The link remained significant even after controlling for a range of variables such as body mass index, blood pressure, age, education level and sex.
Furthermore, they observed improvements in the structural integrity of white matter, which enhances connectivity between neurons and thus make information processing efficient.
The researchers were surprised by the findings given that their sample population is relatively young.
“We knew how this might be important in an elderly population, which does not necessarily have good health, but to see this happening in 30-year-olds is surprising,” said Repple.
Previously, a study on older adults without dementia showed that physical activity, in particular aerobic exercise training, can increase the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory, learning and emotion.
The current study, on the other hand, adds to research on the brain health of a younger demographic and the factors associated with it.
This is not the first time that a study found a link between physical fitness and the brain. Multiple studies did the same before with similar results. These studies, however, are mired with limitations.
For one, there are important variables that were overlooked in their analyses. Experts associate low levels of fitness with higher blood pressure. When a study found improved cognitive abilities vis-a-vis high physical fitness, there is the possibility that lower blood pressure may have contributed to this result.
Furthermore, most similar studies use only one marker of mental performance at a time. The present study, however, used data that measured various cognitive domains.
The researchers also remark that 30 samples are already "pretty good" when it comes to studies using MRI. The large sample size in their study means that findings are more robust and potential misleading factors are reduced.
But further research has to be carried out. Future studies may want to look at how fitness and cognitive performance change over time, as well as how the link between the two works for people with mental health conditions.
Moreover, it is important to know whether increasing a person's fitness increases cognitive ability, something that has remained a question in the current study. Instead, the study highlights physical fitness as a modifiable risk factor related to brain health.
Learn more about the natural ways to boost brain performance at Brain.news.