Study Says Short Run May Enhance Brain Function

July 27, 2022

While it is beneficial to move with joy, new research indicates that a brief, moderate-intensity run can enhance cognitive performance. What you should know about how the brain works and how running affects it is provided here.

About the Study

A 10-minute treadmill run at 50% of maximum oxygen intake (using the V02 max) was followed by a 10-minute period of rest for 26 healthy participants. The Two-Dimensional Mood Scale and the color-word matching Stroop task were used before and after each session to gauge how this bout of exercise affected both mood and executive function.

Researchers discovered that a 10-minute run activates the pre-frontal cortex, enhancing both executive performance and a happy mood. On the Stroop test post-run, shorter interference periods were used to illustrate this finding. The beneficial effects of exercise on brain function are corroborated by prior studies, despite the study's small size.

About the Stroop Task

According to Chrissy Carroll, MPH, RD, LDN, ACSM-cPT, USAT Level ITriathlon Coach, RRCA Certified Running Coach, the effect on brain function was evaluated in this study using the Stroop test.

"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."

The word blue, for instance, might be printed in red font. When asked to identify the font color, the participant takes a moment to respond because the color of the word and its background don't match.

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

The researchers in this study calculated the times between the simplest and hardest tasks and then examined the effects of a brief, 10-minute moderate-pace run on those times. According to Carroll, the findings showed that running reduced the "Stroop interference time," which is the amount of time between tasks. As a result, the researchers hypothesized that running would improve executive functioning in the brain.

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor and Exercise

Although brain-derived neurotrophic factor is not mentioned in the most recent study, prior data analysis suggests that exercise, particularly interval training, can lead to an increase in this protein's concentration, which can have a good impact on learning and memory.

"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."

However, there are even more advantages to running on the brain. Carroll asserts that she firmly believes anyone can benefit from this training method as long as they find it enjoyable.

"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]."

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