Researchers have found that a mere ten minutes of running at moderate intensity boosts blood flow to the bilateral prefrontal cortex, improving cognitive function and mood. These findings, published in Scientific Reports, may contribute to the development of a wider range of treatment recommendations to benefit mental health.
Physical activity has many benefits as noted by a great body of evidence, such as the ability to lift mood, but in previous studies, cycling was often the form of exercise studied. However, running has always played an important role in the well-being of humans. Human running’s unique form and efficiency, which includes the ability to sustain this form of exertion (ie, by jogging as opposed to sprinting), and human evolutionary success are closely linked.
Despite this fact, researchers had not yet looked closely at the effects of running on brain regions that control mood and executive 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 senior author Professor Hideaki Soya at the University of Tsukuba, Japan.
To test their hypothesis, the research team used the well-established Stroop Colour–Word Test and measured haemodynamic changes associated with brain activity while participants were engaged in each task. For example, in one task, incongruent information is shown, eg the word ‘red’ is written in green, and the participant must name the colour rather than read out the word. To do so, the brain must process both sets of information and inhibit the extraneous information. The Stroop interference effect was quantified by the difference in response times for this task and those for a simpler version of the task – stating the names of colour swatches.
The results show that, after ten minutes of moderate-intensity running, there was a significant reduction in Stroop interference effect time. Furthermore, bilateral prefrontal activation had significantly increased during the Stroop task and participants also reported being in a better mood. “This was supported by findings of coincident activations in the prefrontal cortical regions involved in mood regulation,” noted first author Chorphaka Damrongthai.
Given that many characteristics of the human prefrontal cortex are uniquely human, this study not only sheds light on the present benefits of running but also on the possible role that these benefits may have played in the evolutionary past of humans.