Exercise has long been known to promote mental health, and a recent study demonstrates that running not only improves mood but also improves executive function (the set of cognitive processes that control behavior, such as planning, organization, and self-control). 1
Researchers from the University of Tsukuba discovered that jogging for 10 minutes at a moderate effort improves local blood flow to numerous locations in the contralateral prefrontal cortex. This is the region of the brain that is responsible for mood regulation and executive processes.
"Because running is a whole-body locomotive exercise, it may confer more mental health benefits (by stimulating the brain) than other forms of exercise, such as cycling," says Hideaki Soya, PhD, professor and director of the University of Tsukuba's Laboratory of Exercise Biochemistry and Sport Neuroscience. 2
Soya points out that no prior research has focused only on the neural responses that underpin running's positive effects on mood and cognition. As a result, his team's experiment set out to investigate this further.
The Research in Depth
The researchers employed the well-known Stroop Color-Word Test, which asks participants to look at a list of words written in a different color than the word's meaning. The word "green," for example, is written in red. Participants name the color of the word as quickly as they can, rather than the word itself. It may be used to assess a person's selective attention and processing speed, as well as other cognitive abilities.
Participants' Stroop interference effect time was significantly reduced after 10 minutes of moderate-intensity jogging, according to the findings. That wasn't the only advantage, though.
"A 10-minute single-bout of moderate-intensity jogging improves not just mood but also executive function, as well as improved blood flow to the brain, which is linked to inhibitory control and memory."
These discoveries aren't quite new, according to David Linden, PhD, professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins and author of Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality. The primary difference between this study and prior studies is that they employed jogging instead of an exercise bike, which resulted in somewhat altered brain activity patterns, according to Linden.
"These brain activity patterns are only correlations; we don't know if they're the basis for cognitive or emotional gains," he says.
Nonetheless, the researchers believe that their findings can aid in the creation of a broader variety of mental health treatment suggestions. "We hope that our findings inspire individuals to exercise—at the absolute least, to perform 10 minutes of moderate-intensity jogging to keep their bodies and minds in shape," Soya adds.
Running's Mental Health Benefits
Many runners talk of getting a "runner's high," but is it backed up by science? "After running, people feel pleased and successful," Linden adds, "but ecstasy is uncommon." In reality, he claims that only approximately 1 in 20 persons experience joy as a result of jogging.
He claims that scientists are still arguing over it. Improved blood flow to the brain is presumably responsible for some of the "euphoria," and the brain's own marijuana-like chemicals (called endocannabinoids) may also play a role. "Endorphins were formerly assumed to be involved," Linden continues, "but the data now tends to contradict that theory."
Whether or whether "runner's high" is real, exercise's antidepressant benefits are backed up by science. When compared to antidepressant medication, aerobic exercise improves clinically diagnosed major depression, according to a comprehensive evaluation published in 2019. 4
"Running isn't all that extraordinary," Linden adds. "Any cardiovascular activity has antidepressant effects for persons of all ages and aids in the prevention of cognitive deterioration as we become older."
What Does This Mean to You?
All you need to get started jogging is a decent pair of running shoes and a good attitude! Running with a buddy or joining a local running group may be beneficial. Remember to combine your sidewalk pounding workouts with excellent sleep habits and a balanced, healthy diet to get the physical and mental health advantages of jogging.