Sports that Improve Your Cognitive Ability
Even though the all-too-familiar sight of an overpaid professional athlete trying to string together two proper sentences during an interview may not inspire confidence in this notion, the link between engaging in sports and improved cognitive ability is well known and supported by sound scientific evidence, as you will see further on in this text. But, if you want to know which particular sports to go for in order to try and increase your intellectual capabilities, the best we can do is provide a short answer followed by a long, science-backed explanation.
That short answer would be: any sport, although there are two additional points which will allow us to give you a slightly more concrete explanation. However, before we can get to any of that, we first need to explore the general connection between sports and cognitive ability.
The Link between Sports and Improved Cognitive Function
Studies which show a correlation between sports and improved cognitive abilities are plentiful. Or, to be more precise, there are a lot of studies out there which prove that regular physical activity boosts a person’s intellectual capacities. That’s why it’s difficult to pinpoint any one sport that is best suited to making you smarter – any strenuous physical activity will produce beneficial effects for your brain if it is performed on a regular basis. Though there may be two tricks that can be used to maximize these effects, but more on that in a bit.
For now, this article(1) cites two studies which show that exercise can improve brain function at different stages of a person’s life. The first one studied how physical activity during the period of young adulthood (ages 18 to 30) would affect mental acuity 25 years later. The physical activity in question was a treadmill test, which was conducted at the beginning of the study (year 0) and once again at year 20. Cognitive tests carried out at year 25 showed that the participants who had better cardiorespiratory fitness at the earlier stage of their life displayed better psychomotor speed and verbal memory in their midlife.
The second study shows that staying physically active in one’s midlife seems to correlate with a decreased risk of suffering from dementia at old age. Furthermore, it also indicates that becoming more physically active after midlife could still play a part in avoiding this horrible brain disease. This just goes to show that there is no such thing as being too old to start taking advantage of both the short-term and long-term benefits that exercising or playing sports can impart to your cognitive functions.
We’ll mention one more study here in order to try and explain at least a part of the underlying reason for these benefits. During experiments on mice, researchers(2) discovered that irisin, a molecule that was synthesized in the brain as the mice were undergoing endurance exercises, had significant neuroprotective properties. The researchers are hoping this could be used to create a drug to combat neurodegenerative diseases, but the mere fact that a substance with such potential is normally created as a result of strenuous exercise speaks volumes about the upsides of taking part in physical and sports activities.
Try Learning a New Sport
As mentioned previously, a person’s cognitive functions will benefit from any sport, but there are two special remarks we would like to make. The first of them would be to point out that there are studies which suggest that learning a new sport could prove to be additionally advantageous to a person’s mental processes.
One study(3) had 44 participants undergo 6 weeks of training to learn juggling, a motor skill new to them (which is analogous to learning a new sport, or as close as research studies have come to it). Subsequent MRIs of the participants showed increased volumes of gray matter in certain regions of the brain when compared to the baseline scans. The results even showed higher increases in the subjects who had performed better at the task.
Another study(4), this one conducted on mice, showed that the critters which had to learn a new motor skill (using a “complex” running wheel which had unevenly spaced rungs) exhibited brief periods of increased myelin production. Myelin is a material that coats nerve fibers, insulating and protecting them – it enhances signal conduction between nerve cells and is, therefore, critical for the normal operation of the nervous system(5).
Structured Sports Help Classroom Discipline
The results of a study(6) conducted on 2,694 children in Canada showed that kids who regularly played structured sports at an earlier age displayed markedly better results when it came to keeping their focus during classes and following instructions. Linda Pagani, the lead researcher, said there was something special about belonging to a team that influenced the development of those kids, which indicates that this holds particularly true for team sports.
What makes this study particularly relevant to our topic is the fact that it emphasizes the role of organized sports, rather than any regular physical activity, as most studies do. And while it is true that it did not directly research cognitive abilities, the connection between discipline and success at school and the development of intellectual skills is plainly evident. Therefore, if you want to set your child up for success, both academically and with regard to improved cognitive functions down the line, signing him or her up for a team sport is likely the right way to go.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that physical activity and sports, in general, do wonders for a person’s cognitive abilities, regardless of when one decides to take them up. It’s a lot more difficult to recommend a specific sport in this regard, which means you really can’t go wrong with your choice, but if you were to try and maximize your odds of deriving the biggest possible cognitive benefits, your best bet would be to learn a new team sport. Aside from being some of the most popular sports in the world, which should make it easier to find a timeslot that works for you, they have the added benefit of allowing you to socially interact with other people in a fun environment – you’ll get a good mental workout from trying to anticipate and coordinate everyone’s moves, plus you’ll probably have the company to go for a drink afterwards.