As little as 10 minutes of moderate-intensity running is enough to boost your mood and cognitive function, according to a new study – findings that give us a better understanding of how physical exercise is related to mental health.
The study looked at the prefrontal cortex (PFC) in particular, the part of the brain that is associated with executive functions and controlling mood. Running brought on increased blood flow in this area, the researchers discovered.
Running is something that is relatively easy for many of us to do – no special equipment or training is required to get started, and it's been shown to lengthen lifespans. All that coordinated movement also gives the brain more to think about, it seems.
"Given the extent of executive control required in coordinating balance, movement, and propulsion during running, it is logical that there would be increased neuronal activation in the prefrontal cortex and that other functions in this region would benefit from this increase in brain resources," says biochemist Hideaki Soya from the University of Tsukuba in Japan.
We already know that exercise can boost mental and physical health in numerous ways, but when it comes to mental wellbeing, there has been relatively little analysis done on the specific benefits of running, compared with other physical activities such as cycling.
That was something the researchers decided to address, considering how important running has been to our evolution as a species – whereas bicycles have only been around for a few generations – and how varied the exercise can be (from a casual jog to a full-on sprint). It's also an activity that involves the whole body physically.
A total of 26 participants were tested after periods of rest and after 10 minutes of running, in part using what's known as a Stroop Color-Word Test that measures reaction times in brain processing – one of the exercises might involve seeing the word "green" written in red ink and having to name the color rather than read out the word.
After exercise, the participants were reacting more quickly to the tests and reported being in a better mood too. That was in addition to the increased blood flow observed in the PFC using a technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS).
"This was supported by findings of coincident activations in the prefrontal cortical regions involved in mood regulation," says researcher Chorphaka Damrongthai from the University of Tsukuba.
A lot of the functions of the PFC are unique to humans and aren't found in the brains of other animals, so the researchers suggest the discoveries they've outlined could increase our understanding of how we've evolved as a species too.
It's also more evidence that you don't necessarily need to do a lot of exercise to feel the benefits from it. Short bursts of activity have previously been shown to improve mental concentration, heart health, and overall metabolic health.
If exercise can be seen as a form of medicine, the researchers point out, then different types of exercise are like different types of drugs – and we now know more about the effects of running and how it might potentially be used as a form of treatment or therapy.
"Taken together, these results support our hypothesis that an acute bout of moderate-intensity running elicits mood improvement and enhances executive function coinciding with prefrontal subregion activations involved in mood regulation," the researchers write in their paper.
The research has been published in Scientific Reports.