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How’s this for a compelling reason to take up sports, from the conclusions of a newly published University of Illinois study:
Compared to non-athletes, collegiate Division I athletes showed higher street crossing success rates, as reflected by fewer collisions with moving vehicles.
It’s actually an interesting study, though it’s hard not to snicker while reading it. Researchers assembled 18 D1 athletes from a variety of sports (baseball, XC, gymnastics, soccer, swimming, tennis, track, wrestling) and 18 non-athlete controls matched for age, gender, height, weight, GPA and video-game experience, then had them all try to successfully cross a busy street in a 3-D virtual environment, while walking on a manual self-paced treadmill. The results: athletes made it to the other side without getting splatted 72.05% of the time, while non-athletes only made it 55.04% of the time.
The purpose of the study was to find out whether sports training improves multitasking ability:
An ability to efficiently process information is said to improve multitasking performance. That is, if information passes through the bottleneck efficiently and quickly, more information can be processed in a shorter time frame and performance can be maximized.
The athletes also outperformed the non-athletes in a simple test of reaction time — that difference alone is enough to account for the difference in street-crossing success. Of course, there’s a glaring cause-and-effect question here, which the researchers acknowledge:
We speculate that athletes are faster multitaskers than non-athletes, but it is also possible that successful virtual reality street crossers with fast processing speed are more likely to excel at sports.
It’s by no means obvious to me which direction the arrow of causality runs here. I suspect it’s a bit of both. Interestingly, these researchers are also part of the group that has been publishing some very encouraging findings about the effects of aerobic exercise on the brain. Just last month, they published a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper showing that aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus by 2% in older people, reversing the effects of 1-2 years of age-related decline. In this case, cause and effect were clear.
Bottom line: sports skills may help you cross the street successfully, but if you want to remember how to get home again, make sure you’re doing some aerobic exercise.