Running Improves Brain-to-Muscle Communication

Marathon runners know that the mind can be your biggest ally (especially around mile 23), but running can also be a friend to your brain. A new study from the University of Kansas found that running—more so than other workouts—actually changes the way your brain communicates with your body.

Researchers examined the brains and muscles of five endurance athletes, five weight lifters, and five sedentary people. After setting up sensors to monitor the muscle fibers in their quads, scientists found that the muscles in runners responded more rapidly to brain signals than the muscles of any other group. (Find out what’s happening mile by mile in Your Brain On: Long Runs.)

Turns out, all those miles you’ve been logging have been fine-tuning the connection between your brain and body, programming them to work together more efficiently. While the researchers were looking just at how individual muscle fibers reacted in a lab, they theorized that better brain-muscle communication could lend athletic advantages like better agility, faster reaction times, being quicker off the blocks, and better coordination. From a mental perspective, the increased chatter might mean a faster response when conditions in your environment change—like, say, a biker cuts you off or a stop light changes.

Even more interesting? The muscle fibers in the weight lifters reacted similarly to those of non-exercisers—and both these groups were more likely to fatigue sooner than the runners.

While the researchers wouldn’t go so far as to say one type of exercise was better than the other, it may be evidence that humans are natural born runners, said the study’s co-author Trent Herda, Ph.D.,. He explained that it appears the neuromuscular system is more naturally inclined to adapt to aerobic exercise than resistance training. And while the research didn’t answer why or how this adaptation happens, Herda said these are questions they plan to address in future studies.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should stop weightlifting. Resistance training has many proven health benefits (like these 8 Reasons Why You Should Lift Heavier Weights for starters). Just make sure you’re getting your running in too as it appears each type of training helps our bodies in different ways.

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