Can running help us process emotions? A new study says yes

A new study by a team of scientists in Germany has revealed how different exercise intensities stimulate different networks in the brain, and it could explain why going for a run can help us deal with difficult emotions. 

Anyone who has gone out for a run when they’re feeling angry or upset will understand the power it has to make you feel better. The effect is almost magical: instead of lashing out in response to a frustrating or upsetting situation, the act of pounding the pavement has the ability to calm our minds and give us the gift of rationality.

If we asked you to guess why this happens, your answer would likely mention endorphins. Research has repeatedly shown that aerobic exercise such as running or jogging triggers the production of endorphins, a group of hormones considered “natural painkillers” thanks to their ability to activate receptors in the brain which help to minimise discomfort. They’re the magic ingredients behind the so-called “runner’s high” – the feeling of euphoria and exhilaration we sometimes get when running.

But now, new research has revealed another reason why running might have the ability to help us handle difficult emotions: it activates the brain networks responsible for emotional processing.

The study, which was published in the journal Brain Plasticity, found that different levels of exercise intensity influence our brain networks in different ways. In simple terms, this means that the type of exercise we do can help us to access different areas of our brain. 

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As part of the research, the team of scientists from the University of Hospital Bonn used resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess changes in the connections in the brains of the participants after they walked or ran on the treadmill. They also asked them to fill in two questionnaires to measure their mood pre and post exercise.

Interestingly, while both forms of exercise triggered a “significant increase” in the mood of the participants, they showed different results when it came to the MRI scan, which looked at the networks being activated in the brain. 

Low-intensity exercise – such as that achieved by walking on a treadmill – stimulated the brain networks associated with “cognitive control and attention”, while high-intensity exercise – such as running – activated the networks involved with emotional processing. This means that more vigorous exercise such as running or HIIT workouts could have the potential to help us process stressful or difficult situations more easily.

As Christopher Bergland writes for Psychology Today: “Someday soon, experts may be able to prescribe ‘doses’ of HIIT or low-intensity workouts that fortify functional connectivity between specific brain networks in ways that could be tailored to fit someone’s day-to-day cognitive and emotional needs.”

It may feel quite far away, but this kind of approach to our health is yet another example of how “biohacking” – a Silicon-valley born term broadly defined as “the attempt to manipulate your brain and body in order to optimise performance” – may begin to slip into our everyday lives in the future. 

After all, as we learn more and more about the relationship between our bodies and our brain, it only makes sense that we’ll be using this knowledge to optimise and transform the ways in which we work out.

For now, however, it’s just interesting to learn more about why exercise makes us feel a certain way – and it could help to inform our workouts going forward.

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Images: Getty/Unsplash

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