It’s well known that exercise improves your brain function as well as your body. Now research shows why.
A study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that athletes score better on complicated cognitive function tests than non-athletes. Participants were tested on a complex virtual reality street-crossing task with three levels of distraction: no distraction, listening to music, or talking on a hands-free cell phone.
Athletes were significantly more successful at crossing the street without being hit by a virtual car, making it across 74 percent of the time when they were not distracted compared to a 56 percent success rate by non-athletes. Success rates were similar when listening to music, and athletes made it across safely when on a cell phone 66 percent of the time compared to non-athletes success rate of 50 percent.
There were no significant differences between the groups in the time the task took, although in general, athletes made it across the street faster than non-athletes, regardless of distraction. Listening to music didn’t appear to be an actual distraction because there was a slightly greater success rate for both groups when listening to music. Athletes also scored higher on a reaction time test than non-athletes.
Reasons for better performance are likely that athletes are more effective at processing information and then acting on it. Becoming more mentally efficient is something everyone can benefit from, particularly when under stress.
The cognitive benefits of competitive sports are probably greatest when you start young, but simply performing exercise as an adult will help you improve your brain as well. Previous research has shown that learning a new physical skill activates the brain in different ways from just performing an exercise or sport you are familiar with. Competition provides novel decision making challenges and can help you be more mentally efficient and perform everyday tasks at your best.