A new study from researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology examined how cardiorespiratory fitness and body composition relate to neuronal health in 290 healthy young adults, according to a Beckman Institute press release.

The study contributes to a growing body of research suggesting that fitness has beneficial effects for brain health, applying magnetic resonance spectroscopy to detect and measure brain metabolites, focusing specifically on N-acetyl aspartic acid (NAA).

“NAA is produced in the neurons and is an important biochemical marker of energy production and neuronal health” said researcher Aron Barbey, a University of Illinois psychology professor, in the press release. “Our prior work demonstrates that neuronal health, as measured by NAA, has favorable associations with cognitive performance. We were interested in exploring whether modifiable lifestyle factors, such as physical activity and aerobic fitness, are also linked to NAA.”

Further, the researchers showed that a lower percentage of body fat is associated with higher NAA in the white matter, showing that this relationship largely accounts for the association between NAA and cardiorespiratory fitness.

“Our findings suggest that fitter adults benefit from improved structural brain connectivity,” said senior research scientist Ryan Larsen in the press release. “A central question raised by this work is whether we can modify NAA through physical activity and fitness interventions, providing an effective method to enhance cognitive performance and brain health across the lifespan.”

Understanding the role of cardiorespiratory fitness and body composition in brain health. News release. Beckman Institute. June 2, 2020. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://beckman.illinois.edu/about/news/article/2020/06/02/understanding-the-role-of-cardiorespiratory-fitness-and-body-composition-in-brain-health.