People who engage in regular physical activity such as bike riding have electronically quieter brains than unfit people and can better process important auditory information.
According to the study of nearly 1,000 participants at Northwestern University in Illinois, athletes have an enhanced ability to tamp down background electrical noise in their brain.
The findings emerged from a wider study of the impact on brains of concussions and impacts in contact sports.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the researchers found that intense physical activity resulted in fitter brains as well as better physiques.
“No one would argue against the fact that sports lead to better physically fitness, but we don't always think of brain fitness and sports,” said senior author Professor Nina Kraus.
“We’re saying that playing sports can tune the brain to better understand one's sensory environment.”
“Think of background electrical noise in the brain like static on the radio,” Kraus said.
“There are two ways to hear the DJ better: minimize the static or boost the DJ’s voice. We found that athlete brains minimize the background ‘static’ to hear the ‘DJ’ better.”
The study was published in the journal Sports Health.
“A serious commitment to physical activity seems to track with a quieter nervous system,” Kraus said.
“And perhaps, if you have a healthier nervous system, you may be able to better handle injury or other health problems.”
The findings could motivate athletic interventions for populations that struggle with auditory processing.
In particular, intense physical activity may offset the excessively noisy brains often found in children from low-income areas, Kraus said.
Like athletes, musicians and those who can speak more than one language also have an enhanced ability to hear incoming sound signals, Kraus said.
However, musicians’ and multilinguals’ brains do so by turning up the sound in their brain versus turning down the background noise in their brain.
“They all hear the ‘DJ’ better but the musicians hear the ‘DJ’ better because they turn up the ‘DJ,’ whereas athletes can hear the ‘DJ’ better because they can tamp down the ‘static,’” Kraus said.