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Can Playing Sports Make You Smarter?

Professional athletes excel at certain visual tasks, says a new study. But if you're just playing rec league ball—will you see the same brainpower benefits?

Professional athletes clearly excel at visual tasks—that’s how they can track the ball and players at the same time without running into each other. But are elite players better at these skills than amateur athletes and non-athletes?

The answer is yes, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports, at least when it comes to tracking multiple objects at the same time. Researchers measured this by using virtual balls—representing the players—moving in a three-dimensional space on a computer screen. This mental ability is the same kind that you would need to drive a car in traffic, cross the road safely, or—you guessed it—play team sports.

But while professional athletes outperformed the competition in the lab—possibly a result of the amount of time they’ve spent playing sports—there’s still hope for the rest of us. Amateur athletes started the sessions only slightly better than non-athletes. With practice, though, amateurs improved much more at this complicated visual task than the sedentary volunteers.

This isn’t the first study, either, to suggest that athletes have stronger mental abilities. Other research has shown that professional athletes:

  • Have an increased cortical thickness in areas of the brain involved in tracking the movement of people.
  • Are better at crossing a virtual street while walking on a treadmill. Non-athletes, on the other hand, tend to run into cars and trucks more often.
  • Excel at mental abilities like working memory, creativity and multi-tasking.

Athletes who make it to the top teams might be born with a visual skill advantage, but everyone involved in the study improved with practice. For amateurs, this detail might not even matter; exercise provides enough other benefits that you can just let your brain come along for the ride.

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