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Playing sports can boost brain health, researchers say

Study findings suggest that athletes could have healthier brains

Photo (c) Victor Moussa - Fotolia
While parents of athletes may be concerned about their children’s brain health, a new study could help alleviate some of those nerves. 

Researchers from Northwestern University found that playing a sport could help consumers boost their brain health, so long as they’re able to avoid injuries. 

“No one would argue against the fact that sports lead to better physical fitness, but we don’t always think of brain fitness and sports,” said researcher Nina Kraus. “We’re saying that playing sports can tune the brain to better understand one’s sensory environment.” 

The power of playing

The researchers had nearly 500 student athletes participate in the study, matching them up with non-athletes of the same age and gender. 

The experiment tested the participants’ ability to parse out sounds through varying levels of background noise, a skill many athletes have mastered, as they’re required to keep their ears attuned to their teammates or coaches. 

The researchers assessed the participants’ brain activity while they heard sounds through earbuds, all while background noise was filtered through at different volumes. The study revealed that athletes were better than their non-athletic counterparts at parsing out the intentional sounds from the background sounds. 

“Think of background electrical noise in the brain like static on the radio,” said Kraus. “There are two ways to hear the DJ better: minimize the static or boost the DJ’s voice. We found that athletes better minimize the background ‘static’ to hear the ‘DJ’ better.” 

The researchers think these findings could benefit many students, including those from low-income areas, as these children are often vulnerable to countless noises during the night. They say that engaging in a sport like hockey, football, or basketball could help students in these areas tune out the background noise, get better sleep, and have better overall brain health. 

“A serious commitment to physical activity seems to track with a quieter nervous system” said Kraus. “And perhaps, if you have a healthier nervous system, you may be able to better handle injury or other health problems.” 

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