New research suggests that athletes are not only better at self-regulating their physical activity, but also at self-regulating their brain activity. The study, published in the journal Biological Psychology, also uncovered differences in brain structure among athletes and nonathletes.
Among many other benefits, regular exercise has been found to improve cognitive control. These enhanced cognitive processes, such as inhibition, attention, and concentration, are believed to help regular exercisers self-regulate their physical activity. For example, studies among high-performing athletes suggest that high levels of executive control offer a competitive advantage.
Since athletes appear to be better at self-regulating their physical activity, study author Silvia Erika Kober and team wondered whether they might also be better at self-regulating their brain activity. The authors explain that regulating one’s own biological signals requires two skills that athletes may be likely to have. For one, athletes may be skilled at discriminating their inner biological signals, since they tend to be in tune with their physiological signals. Secondly, athletes may be skilled at altering these signals in a desired direction, since exercise is associated with high executive function and self-regulation.
In their study, the researchers tested athletes’ ability to self-regulate their brain activity through neurofeedback training. With neurofeedback training, a person’s brain activity is recorded, processed by computer, and then presented back to them. The participant then tries to change their brain activity in a desired way — for example, to improve emotion regulation or cognitive performance.
The researchers recruited a sample of 26 triathletes and 25 control subjects who were not regular exercisers. Within each group, half the subjects participated in a single session of sensorimotor rhythm (SMR) upregulation neurofeedback training while the other half participated in a sham training. During the real training, participants received real-time feedback on their sensorimotor activity, while during the sham training, participants were shown feedback from another subject. In both cases, the participants watched a computer screen and tried to increase the size of a bar reflecting their SMR power.
The results revealed that both the triathletes and the nonathletes who received the real training successfully increased their SMR power across the training runs. But interestingly, the triathletes outperformed the nonathletes during the second half of the training, showing a linear increase in SMR power while the nonathletes did not. Moreover, the triathletes’ performance during neurofeedback training increased alongside the number of years they had been training for triathlons.
According to the study authors, these results suggest that “triathletes were able to self-regulate their brain activity in a desired direction over a longer time period compared to the control group.” While the nonathletes were able to self-regulate their brain activity for the first seven runs of the training, it appeared that they were unable to maintain the mental state necessary for the final three runs.
Furthermore, structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data revealed that the triathletes showed larger gray and white matter volumes in the inferior frontal gyrus when compared to nonathletes. The authors say that these structural differences may have been related to the superior self-regulation abilities observed among the triathletes.
The study was limited by a small sample size, and further research will be needed before drawing strong conclusions. Kober and colleagues say it will also be important to investigate whether these results replicate among athletes in other sporting disciplines.
The study, “Triathletes are experts in self-regulating physical activity – But what about self-regulating neural activity?”, was authored by Silvia Erika Kober, Manuel Ninaus, Matthias Witte, Finn Buchrieser, Doris Grössinger, Florian Ph.S Fischmeister, Christa Neuper, and Guilherme Wood.