Athletes Not Only Have Bigger Muscles, But They May Also Have Bigger Brains

In December, Schmidt-Wilke’s lab of researchers from the Ruhr Universitat Bochum in Germany published a study in Neuroscience showing that athletes have larger brain volume in areas that control coordinated movement and long-term memory than people who rarely exercise.  The researchers compared brain images of martial artists, endurance athletes, and people who do not regularly exercise, to understand the different ways anaerobic and aerobic exercise influence the brain. Schmidt-Wilke’s team found that both anaerobic and aerobic exercise yielded larger brain volume in areas that control postural stability, the timing of movements, and other coordinated actions.  Comparatively, these same brain regions were significantly smaller in the group of individuals who did not exercise.

The researchers tested anaerobic exercise in a group of martial artists, while endurance athletes, such as long-distance runners, swimmers, and cyclers made up the aerobic exercise group.  Brain images revealed that the martial arts group had a larger volume of gray matter in the medial temporal lobe compared to the endurance athletes and the non-athletes.  The medial temporal lobe is thought to play a major role in long-term memory.

An increased volume of gray matter could be due to many reasons, one of which is neurogenesis, or the birth of new neurons.  The precise cause of the increased gray matter due to motor learning is not yet known, but it is usually a good sign for mental capabilities.  For instance, previous research has shown that health concerns such as obesity, high blood pressure, and neurodegenerative motor disorders are all linked to a decrease in gray matter, while increased volumes of gray matter have been seen in healthy, high-level athletes.


The yellow areas indicate gray matter volume differences in brain regions responsible for long-term memory. The left image compares the brain areas of the endurance athlete and the non-athlete groups, while the right image compares the brain areas of the martial arts and the non-athlete groups.










The study shows that both groups of athletes, endurance and martial arts have increased volumes of gray matter in areas of the brain responsible for motor coordination tasks.  The endurance athletes also appeared to have an advantage over the martial artists and non-athletes in areas of the brain that are crucial for long-term memory.

These findings don’t necessarily mean that endurance exercise should always be done rather than anaerobic exercise, like martial arts.  There could be other beneficial effects of anaerobic exercise that were not tested in this study.  But the important result is that exercise does, in fact, have an influence not only on the physical structure of the body, but also the physical architecture of the brain.


To read full article:

Schlaffke, L., et al. (2014) “Sports and brain morphology–A voxel-based morphometry study with endurance athletes and martial artists.” Neuroscience 259, 35-42.

About Lydia Marks