Cognitive function and mood improve after a brief running session

Cognitive function and mood improve after a brief running session
© iStock/Nadasaki

Researchers from the University of Tsukuba found that increased activation of the bilateral prefrontal cortex show improvements in mood and cognitive function after a running session.

Running may be useful to improve mental health and cognitive function. Researchers found as little as ten minutes of moderate-intensity running increases blood flow to the various loci in the bilateral prefrontal cortex— playing an important role in controlling mood and executive functions.

These findings may contribute to a wider range of treatment recommendations to benefit mental health.

Physical activity plays a crucial role in human well-being

Physical activity has many benefits, including:

  • Reduces health risks like cancer.
  • Improve bone and functional health.
  • Reduce the risk of falls.

However, running has been relatively unstudied compared to other exercise forms like cycling. The efficiency of human running, which includes the ability to sustain this form of exertion (for example, by jogging as opposed to sprinting), and the evolutionary success of humans are closely related.

Despite this, researchers have not addressed the effects of running on the brain regions that control mood and cognitive functions. “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,” explained Professor Hideaki Soya at the University of Tsukuba.

The effects on cognitive function

To test their hypothesis, researchers utilised the Stroop Colour-Word Test. They captured data on hemodynamic changes associated with brain activity whilst participants engaged in each task. One task showed incongruent information – for example, the word red is written in green, and the participant must name the colour rather than read out the word. The brain must process both sets of information and inhibit unnecessary information to do this. The Stroop interference effect was quantified by the difference in response times for this task and those for a simpler version —stating the names of colour swatches.

The results demonstrated that after ten minutes of moderate-intensity running, there was a significant reduction in Stroop interference effect time. Furthermore, bilateral prefrontal activation significantly increased during the Stroop task. After running, participants reported being in a better mood and cognitive function. “This was supported by findings of coincident activations in the prefrontal cortical regions involved in mood regulation,” first author Chorphaka Damrongthai added.

Given that many characteristics of the human prefrontal cortex are uniquely human, this study sheds light on the present benefits of running including, improved cognitive function and mood. It highlights the possible role the benefits played in the evolutionary past of humans.


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