Running is arguably one of the easiest ways to benefit from physical exercise because it is both cheap and accessible.
Running improves cardiovascular health, strengthens muscles, and improves bone strength. In addition to these physical benefits, running is associated with improved mental health.
A team of scientists at the University of Tsukuba in Japan recently completed a small-scale study that showed that only 10 minutes of moderate intensity running improves both mood and executive processing.
Brain imaging showed that running increased local blood flow to various parts of the prefrontal cortex after the session compared with not running. The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in controlling mood and executive functions.
The results of the study appear in the journal
The brain must process large amounts of sensory information to coordinate the movement of running while keeping the body balanced. Perhaps for this reason, research has shown that the prefrontal cortex becomes activated during running.
In addition, the mechanical impact of running increases blood circulation, which may also benefit brain activity.
Scientists have also investigated the up-and-down head movement that occurs during running in animals. They have concluded that this motion may contribute to serotonin receptor regulation in the prefrontal cortex. This, in turn, may play a part in improving mood and cognitive control.
In the new study, the researchers investigated executive brain function and mood after a 10-minute running session on a treadmill. They then compared these with brain function and mood at rest.
The researchers assessed executive function using the Stroop task, which involves presenting participants with color words written in incongruous colors. For instance, the word “red” may appear with the letters colored blue.
As quickly as possible, the participants must name the color of the letters rather than reading the word itself.
While the participants performed the Stroop task, the scientists assessed brain activity by monitoring blood flow changes using near-infrared spectroscopy — a noninvasive method of optical imaging.
When a specific area of the brain becomes activated, the amount of blood in that area changes quickly. Near-infrared spectroscopy measures those changes.
The participants also completed a
The results showed that the running session led to a significant increase in mood compared with the control session. In particular, the mood scale showed increases in pleasure and arousal.
People in the running intervention also completed the Stroop test in a significantly faster time and experienced increased brain signals in the bilateral prefrontal cortex.
Medical News Today contacted the first author Chorphaka Damrongthai and the last author Prof. Hideaki Soya:
“The results surprised us, in that 10 minutes of moderate running enhances not only executive function but also pleasant mood coinciding with bilateral prefrontal activation.”
“Based on previous studies, including our own,” they continued, “physical exercise has been revealed to increase executive function by predominantly activating the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is a brain locus implicated in inhibitory and mood control, without reporting change of pleasant mood.”
“Almost [all] these studies have used pedaling, not running. […] Running may stimulate the prefrontal cortex more broadly to benefit mood and executive function than other forms of exercise that do not require as much coordination of weight-bearing activity, such as pedaling.”
Only 26 participants took part in the study. A small number of participants makes it harder to draw conclusions about the wider population from the results.
Also, it is important to note that the mood scale is self-reported and, therefore, open to bias. People might not always give answers that are completely accurate — either because they do not know or because they want to make a good impression.
Marilyn Moffat, professor of physical therapy at the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development in New York City, told MNT:
“It is difficult to tell if these changes related to enhanced arousal and pleasure level could be associated with the increases in the blood levels of the neuromodulating endocannabinoids that may occur with running, thus promoting short-term psychoactive effects [that lead] to decreased anxiety and enhanced feelings of calm.”
Some evidence shows that regular exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain vital for memory storage. Prof. Moffat wonders whether this might play a part in the effects that the team saw in this study.
However, it is not clear from the paper whether the participants exercised regularly.
Prof. Moffat told MNT that she “would like to see a comparison of weight-bearing (running, dance) versus non-weight-bearing exercise (pedaling) using similar levels of intensity and similar time durations in both younger and older populations to see if differences do exist.”
The researchers say that it is important to demonstrate a minimal effective exercise that will benefit both mental and physical health.
It can be hard for some individuals to stick to exercise regimens. The results of this study are important because knowing that even just a short run is beneficial may make it easier for people to get out there and benefit from exercise.
The study authors told MNT, “To extend our findings based on our many animal studies, we are working on light intensity running [and] its beneficial effect in promoting mental health.”
“We would like to encourage people, especially vulnerable people […], to keep their body and brain fit using our minimal exercise model.” They say that 10 minutes of moderate intensity running “is an easily accessible form of exercise requiring minimal equipment.”
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