Short Runs Impact Brain Function, Study Says

Key Takeaways

  • New research suggests a short run can improve brain function.
  • Experts indicate that the impact of running on brain function is not fully understood.
  • Anyone can reap the other benefits of running, which can reduce the risk for chronic disease.

The positive impact of exercise on brain function is yet another reason to get moving. But what is the best modality to incorporate?

While any joyful movement can be beneficial, new research suggests that a short, moderate-intensity run can improve brain function. Here is what you need to know about brain function and the impact of running.

About the Study

Twenty-six healthy subjects completed a 10-minute treadmill run at 50% of peak oxygen uptake (using the V02 max), followed by a resting session. Aiming to measure the impact of this bout of exercise on both mood and executive function, researchers utilized the Two-Dimensional Mood Scale and the color-word matching Stroop task before and after each session.

Researchers found that a 10-minute run stimulates the pre-frontal cortex, resulting in an increased positive mood as well as increased executive function. This finding was demonstrated by shorter interference times on the Stroop task post-run. While the study is small, the positive impact of exercise on brain function is supported by previous research.

About the Stroop Task

In this study, the effect on brain function was measured with the Stroop task, explains Chrissy Carroll, MPH, RD, LDN, ACSM-cPT, USAT Level I Triathlon Coach, RRCA Certified Running Coach.

“This is a well-known test, which starts with a relatively easy task, then ends with a more challenging portion,” Carroll explains. “In the last task, the individual is shown a written name of a color, but the font is printed in another color.”

For example, the word blue may be written in red font. The participant is asked to name the color of the font, and there is a slight delay due to the mismatch between the word itself and its color.

“If you think it sounds easy, try looking online for some examples—it’s surprisingly tough,” explains Carroll.

The researchers in this study measured the differences in the time between the easiest task and the toughest task and looked at how a short 10-minute, moderately-paced run impacted that time. The results found that running led to shorter time differences between the tasks.

This time difference is also known as the “Stroop interference time,” says Carroll. As such, the researchers theorize that running may increase executive functioning in the brain.

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor and Exercise

Although the latest study does not specifically make note of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, previous data analysis indicates that exercise—notably interval training—can result in increased concentration of this protein, which can positively impact both learning and memory.

Chrissy Carroll, MPH, RD, LDN, ACSM-CPT

While scientists used to believe that the number of neurons in the brain was fixed, we know now that adults can generate new neurons in their brains via neurogenesis.

— Chrissy Carroll, MPH, RD, LDN, ACSM-CPT

“Running is known to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor, known as BDNF,” says Carroll. “While scientists used to believe that the number of neurons in the brain was fixed, we know now that adults can generate new neurons in their brain via neurogenesis. It’s thought that BDNF stimulates neurogenesis, which could lead to improved learning and cognition.”

But the benefits of running on the brain do not end there. Carroll says she is a firm believer that this training modality can work for anyone as long as they enjoy it.

“Running may increase activation of certain areas of the brain, possibly through its required awareness of different sensory inputs to maintain balance and stride, which may keep the brain healthy,” says Carroll. “There are different neurotransmitters that may be released during a run, along with impacts to the endocannabinoid system. [In fact, the runner’s high that many people experience is likely due to the impact on this system].”

What This Means For You

Running can be another tool in improving mental health, and the benefits from this mode of exercise can be achieved in as few as 10 minutes. If you are looking to give your brainpower a boost, you may want to consider incorporating short runs into your week. As with any exercise, consult with a healthcare provider before starting a regimen, and ideally, form a plan with a certified running coach for optimal results.

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