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Are athletes smarter than non-athletes?

It's no secret that playing organized sports is good for the body, but could it also be good for the mind? A new study suggests that playing sports, whether it requires used soccer gear or used hockey skates, may make athletes smarter. Researchers from the University of Montreal School of Optometry found that brains of elite athletes have better mental processing and learning skills.

The study, which was published recently in the journal Scientific Reports, was based off an analysis of the brains of 102 athletes from the English Premiere League, National Hockey League and France's Top 14 rugby club. Researchers also looked at the brains of more than 173 amateur athletes as well as 33 college students who did not play competitive sports. To test their brain function, the team had each participant complete at test meant to measure their cognitive abilities and visual perception. The results revealed that athletes had better cognitive abilities, but the reasons for the findings are still in question.

"It is unclear whether this superior learning ability is unique to professional athletes, and moreover whether these are innate skills that led them to be selected by these teams, or whether these skills have been acquired through extensive training," said study researcher Jocelyn Faubert. "It will therefore be interesting to see how individuals of all athletic abilities improve their perception score as they train with this system."

While the study was focused on the brains of professional and elite athletes, the mental benefits of exercise, whether it's through running on used treadmills or playing golf, extend to everyone. Countless studies have shown that playing sports and staying physically active can help keep brains healthy. 

Some of the most compelling evidence comes from a 2012 study out of Dartmouth College that suggests regular exercise could improve mental acuity, memory and learning, all of which could translate into better performance at school. In this case, researchers say that the reason for the improved mental function is because in about 60 percent of the population, exercise might be the reason for the expression of a certain gene that helps the brain function more smoothly.

Whatever the reason for the mental and physical benefits of exercise, taken together the studies only further the important role that sports and activity play in a healthy lifestyle.

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