January 6, 2020
By: Ilan Danan, MD, MSc
Not everyone associates the playing of sports with intelligence. Many of you have probably heard of an athlete being inappropriately labeled as a “dumb jock” at some point in your life. But have you ever wondered just how accurate of a stereotype this is? As it turns out, science argues that the “dumb jock” moniker really isn’t valid at all. The truth is that many athletes have healthier brains than those who don’t play any sport. The question is: why does playing sports lead to a healthier brain?
Playing Sports can Improve your Brain’s Overall Function
People who engage in regular, sustained physical activity tend to have more vigorous minds than those who don’t. And all this exercise provides a variety of benefits, including increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Physical activity also helps a person’s mind to become sharper and more focused. A recently-published Northwestern University study found that, if injury is absent, athlete brains tend to be healthier than non-athlete brains – even among athletes who play contact sports. Nina Kraus is the director of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory called Brainvolts, and she believes this study reveals that sports can “tune” a person’s brain to understand their sensory environment better. Her team’s findings help to provide more insight into the link between brain function and physical activity.
Physical Activity Increases a Person’s Focus and Mental Toughness
The Northwestern research highlights a skill that many athletes have in their ability to block out specific noises (like the roar of a crowd in a stadium in order) to better focus on a particular sound. That may not seem like much of a skill but think about all the distracting “noise” in your life. What might it be like if you could block it all out to focus solely on the task at hand? Put that way; it almost sounds like a superpower. And many athletes possess it. Their mental focus and toughness are powerful. Their ability to stay on task despite what is happening around them allows them to compete at such a high level.
Sports Players Have Great Perception
A person’s brain can also have a higher perception within an environment through physical activity. Physical activity helps the brain to create more electrical impulses or activity. Once that electrical activity increases, it causes the brain to become more focused and aware. Good athletes or people who are regularly physically active display enhanced perception and awareness.
A Quick Word about Brain Static or Brain Noise
Some scientific research also concurs that “brain noise” can affect the brain’s neurons. When a person has too much neural activity, their brain starts to create more distracting “noise.” This may be one reason why those with ADHD, or similar neurological conditions, struggle to remain still, concentrate, and stay on task. But studies show that people who engage in physical activity can calm this brain noise by helping to keep their neurons from constantly firing or setting off signals. This is one reason why physicians may recommend sports activities to children who are suffering from hyperactivity disorders. Though it may sound counter-intuitive, structured physical activity helps to keep them calm, engaged, and focused.
Sports Help to Keep a Person’s Mood Balanced
Physical activity causes a person’s brain to focus exclusively on what they are doing at that moment. This keen focus, in turn, allows them to temporarily tune out what is going on around them. Physical activity also releases hormones that assist in eliminating stress, worry, and other negative feelings and emotions.
Sports as a Remedy for Depression and Stress
Depression is a huge mental health problem today, with a growing number of people suffering from it. One way that counselors and psychologists look to help individuals deal with this issue is by getting them to engage in exercise and/or sports related activities. As previously stated, sports and physical activity temporarily forces some aspects within a person’s brain to change, allowing for a break from depressive thoughts or emotions.
The main thing to remember is that physical activity is essential for keeping a person’s mind sharp, focused, and healthy. It has also been found to be protective against neurological diseases, including certain forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Science has also proven numerous times that physical activity helps people to sleep better and to improve their ability to learn. Ultimately, a person’s brain works better when they play sports or engage in some consistent physical activity — no “dumb jocks” about it.