Here’s What Just 20 Minutes Of Running Does To Your Brain

(Image credit: unknown)

The idea that running can improve your mood and protect your mental health is something that many runners have accepted as fact for a long time, simply based on their own experience.

But there has also been a lot of research that backs this up, which we discovered more about previously when we spoke to Dr Brendon Stubbs from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London about how running can improve your mental health.

Now, new research into the area by Asics – overseen by Stubbs – has thrown up some exciting findings, in the form of measurable improvements in brain activity after just 20 minutes of exercise. These include an improvement of up to 29% in people’s ability to deal with stress, and an increase in relaxation levels of up to 18%. People also got sharper, with an increase in brain processing speed of up to 26% and an improvement in memory of up to 21%, while they were also up to 28% less prone to making rash decisions.

Perhaps the stat that stood out the most to us in these incredibly frustrating times was that 20 minutes of running resulted in a drop of up to 135% in negative emotions like frustration.

It all sounds amazing and, we assume, makes you want to go out for a run right now. But before you do here’s Stubbs with more information about the research and why it’s so exciting.

How is the new study different from past research?

We’ve been able to use robust EEG [electroencephalogram] electrical activity data among a sample of elite athletes and everyday athletes to understand what actually changes within the brain.

A lot of the previous measures that have captured changes in frustration and the other metrics have overwhelmingly relied on self-reporting – asking people questions to understand how they feel after running. Those are validated, but what’s really exciting about this is that it’s not just asking someone, it’s looking specifically at different types of activity within the brain, to demonstrate what is actually changing.

We have to note that the sample size is relatively small. That’s one of the things with using objective, novel data with lots of detail – you sacrifice big numbers.

What are you seeing when taking these measurements?

EEGs objectively measure shifts in brain activity within cognitive and emotional metrics. There are four different types of waves measured. These are well validated waves associated with different cognitive states.

The first one are theta brain waves. These are dominant for sleep, consolidating memories and helping with emotional processing. Having high theta brain waves also indicates an increase in creativity and intuition within the brain.

The second type we measured is alpha brain waves. These are slower and larger waves, and are associated with a state of relaxation. They represent the brain shifting into a calm and collected state. They’re really important when we think about the relaxation benefits of exercise.

The third type of wave is beta. These are smaller, faster brain waves involving conscious thought and logical thinking. These are associated with feeling mentally alert and sharp. Having a good amount of beta waves is essential for us to focus.

The final type is gamma waves. These are the fastest brain waves and indicate a higher arousal state. They’re responsible for how sharp we feel in our thoughts, our cognitive function, learning, memory and information processing.

We’ve been able to measure all these four key objective shifts in brain waves across different areas of the brain when people are not moving, and after a period of 20 minutes of running and engaging in exercise. This is really novel and exciting data, and the great news is these [positive effects] are things that happen immediately from 20 minutes of exercise.

How long do these effects last after exercise?

We measured it for several minutes before and several minutes afterwards, so how long these last for we’re not sure. That’s a really important question to look at in the future, but we know outside of this that feelings of alertness and of reduced frustration tend to hang on for a number of hours after we engage in exercise, if not for the rest of the day. Some of the past research has shown that in the long term, movement can protect us against mental health problems as well. The long-term benefits are likely to be substantial.

Asics is encouraging people to move at sunrise and share their activity on social media with #SunriseMind. For every post shared, Asics will make a donation to mental health charity Mind. To find out more, visit Asics’ Sound Mind, Sound Body hub.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.