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Culture

The Cognitive Benefits of Pounding the Pavement

Does jogging make you smart? Well, not exactly but researchers at Ulm University have discovered that running aids concentration and improves visual memory.

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And they say jogging makes you clever?

Healthy body, healthy mind…or so the old adage goes. But while the saying has been handed down through generations as a way of convincing people that pounding the pavements may help you intellectually as well as physically, very little has been done in the way of proving it academically.

However, researchers from the University of Ulm have been working on the theory and their first results have recently been made public.

So, can you run yourself clever? Thirty test subjects were given the task of jogging twice a week for 30 minutes at a time and their results, as processed by the neurosciences department at the university, hit the streets to find out.

After each session, the joggers were required to take a number of tests to see if their minds reacted better after half an hour of running. "We had to do tests and answer many questions," said Öclan Cakar, a student from Ulm. "We had to give descriptions of things, analyze words and pictures. It was quite hard."

The difficult physical aspects for the joggers were mirrored by the research problems the scientists had to overcome. Did jogging inspire enhanced cognitive performances or was the running just a part of a more expansive process? If the exercise did increase cognitive performance, which particular skills did it help?

Runners made fewer mistakes in tests

Frankfurt Marathon BdT

Joggers are more diligent, apparently

In an attempt to fine tune the research, the test group was then split into two. One group continued running, twice a week for six weeks, and continued with the tests. The other did not jog at all but still took the tests. The response time for the questions between the two groups was similar but there was one marked difference.

"What changed, however, was the number of mistakes," said Ralf Reinhardt, one of the researchers at Ulm University. "The runners who had taken the six-week jogging course made fewer mistakes. They could complete the tests much more precisely than the no-runners could."

In a way, this proved that running does make you smarter, or at least raises the concentration level by a substantial amount.

Concentration gained remains when jogging stops

Pause

"It's okay...we used to jog"

More research showed that a jogger who regularly takes to the track will continue to have the high level of concentration even if he or she takes a break from the training.

After six weeks or running and non-running, the control groups swapped. "That was when we saw this astonishing result," said Reinhardt. "What the runners had acquired in terms of concentration, they could keep."

The switching of duties showed that the original runners maintained the high levels of concentration they acquired in the first six-week course and the non-runners, who then took on the jogging duties, topped up their own levels until the two groups were almost balanced again.

Visual memory enhanced by running...but why?

Einige hundert als Nikolaus verkleidete Maenner laufen am Sonntag, 27. Nov. 2005, beim traditionellen Nikolauf in Duesseldorf

Unfortunately, running won't help you remember those Christmas lists

Another surprising result came from the tests. Visual memory was enhanced by the jogging. When it came to remembering numbers and such, the joggers showed very little difference to pre-jogging memory levels but pictorial tasks, such as remembering town plans, showed marked improvement.

So what was happening and why? The scientists could not exactly say but psychologist Sanna Stroth had a theory: "The Hippocampus, a structure relevant for memory, plays a very strong role in the animal kingdom for developing awareness. Activity is thought to increase the manufacture of new Hippocampus cells and protect the existing ones."

Indeed, the Hippocampus area of the brain is well known for being a visual rather than verbal storing device. What exactly is happening still remains unclear. So the joggers of Ulm will be pounding the streets again in the near future in search of the answer.

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