Although it's totally possible to live on nothing but pork rinds and jelly beans as a teenager, things like "general health" and "longevity" start to matter when you get older. If you're considering taking up exercise in the new year, here's some extra motivation: According to a new study, endurance running changes your brain over time in ways you might not expect. Call it the one reason to start running in 2017, because it turns out it's an excellent resolution in more ways than one.
It's well known that exercise can stave off memory problems in older adults, but not much research has been done on how it influences young people until recently. In a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers at the University of Arizona performed MRI scans on two groups of men between 18 and 25 years old. One group was made up of cross country runners, and the ohter hadn't been part of any organized sports for at least a year. When these brain scans were compared, researchers found that the endurance runners had more connectivity between brain regions, including the frontal cortex, which is in charge of higher-level thinking. So running is a physical activity, but it may have an influence on mental abilities as well.
But that's old news. At this point, there are plenty of studies showing that exercise is closely intertwined with mental health; it improves your mood, protects against cognitive decline, and might reduce anxiety and depression. Here's what makes the study in Human Neuroscience interesting: Researchers noted that runners' brains looked a lot like those of musicians. Studies have shown that activities requiring fine motor skills, like playing an instrument, influence the structure of the brain. Many of these areas have to do with hearing and movement, but there's also evidence that music lessons affect some frontal areas.
Although running is similar to playing an instrument in that it's a repetitive physical activity, it requires far less precision. However, the study indicates that it still has an substantial influence on cognition, even in young people. "These activities that people consider repetitive actually involve many complex cognitive functions — like planning and decision-making — that may have effects on the brain," said study co-author David Raichlen, according to Science Daily.
This isn't the first study to indicate that running in particular boosts your brain power; earlier this year, research found that endurance running causes brain cells to reproduce faster. If running isn't your thing, don't worry — pretty much any form of exercise is beneficial in some way. But if you're not sure where to start, running is free, gets you outside, and might just help you think clearer. Then you can go back to watching Netflix from a blanket burrito, because it's frigid outside.