To help improve focus, develop superior thinking skills and improve cognitive function, a deep-thinking activity like chess might come to mind. If there were a sport that produced the same brain boosting results, you'd probably think one like soccer -- with its all-in-one multi-tasking trifecta of running, dribbling and passing -- would take the cake. (In fact, the world's best chess player swears by both.)

But not running. Running seems mindless, repetitive and for many downright boring. It's not one you'd think to associate with complex decision making or higher-than-average brain health. A new study says otherwise.

Researchers from the University of Arizona compared brains of competitive long-distance runners to people who didn't exercise. They discovered the runners' brains were highly active in areas associated with cognitive function "including planning, inhibition, monitoring, attentional switching and multi-tasking and motor control." They published their results in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Researchers compared 11 competitive college runners with a 11 individuals who hadn't exercised in a year. All subjects sat quietly for six minutes while an MRI measured their brain activity. Over those six minutes, the researchers observed the following.

How runners' brains were different

More activity in deep-thinking areas of the brain: The parts of the runners' brains that "spoke" to each other were in areas that required high-level thought. Scientists observed connection between areas of the brain associated with memory, decision making, and processing. The non-runners had greater inactivity in these areas.

Less activity in the mind-wandering areas of the brain: Researchers also found parts of the runners' brains associated with getting distracted or losing focus were less active than the same areas of the non-runners' brains. This suggests the runners were better at concentration.

"To me, this suggests that running may not be such a simple activity after all," study co-author and neuroscientist Gene E. Alexander told New York Times. While it may seem like a thoughtless task, Alexander went on to point out that running requires a series of complex navigations.

When you run, you simultaneously process your surrounding environment, where you're going and how you're feeling. If you're a regular runner like those the researchers studied, you also bring in information from past runs that may inform your decision making. You may decide to change course mid-run. Or you may decide to not. Either way, you're making decision after decision literally on-the-go. It makes sense to include that while you exercise your body through running, you also exercise your brain.

The caveats

There are a couple things to keep in mind before drawing too many conclusions about this study. First, the subjects of the study were young collegiate men. Researchers often exclude women from studies because their menstrual cycles make it more difficult to clear-cut results. So the results of this study -- and many others -- can't be applied to entire 50 percent of the population. To learn more about why excluding women from research is a problem, listen to the recent Freakonomics episode, Bad Medicine, Part 2: (Drug) Trials and Tribulations.

Additionally, this study compared endurance runners to guys who hadn't exercised in the past year. Is it the simple act of running that made their brains so healthy? Or was it their regular fitness regimen of performing an endurance sport? Perhaps the effects could be the same if the brains of long-distance cyclists, swimmers or triathletes were studied.

Like many studies, this one reveals interesting results that offer opportunities for further research. And if you needed a little boost to motivate you go outside for a run as winter settles in, then by all means let the results of this study carry you out the door.

Published on: Dec 14, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.