Researchers have confirmed runner’s high is a real thing. It turns out there is more going on in your brain than that endorphin-rush; your brain is getting a cognitive boost, as well. Thanks to a new study, we know this boost happens faster if you’ve run just 15 minutes versus sat and meditated. Why exactly does it happen?
THE TRENDINESS OF MEDITATION
Though we don’t know exactly when meditation as a practice began, scholars have worked to trace back centuries from its beginnings to what is now modern Western meditation. Mentions of meditation and mindfulness in the news and online have skyrocketed — a Google news search brings up more than 16 million hits — and everyone from psychiatrists to celebrities is recommending integrating it into daily living.
It isn’t a coincidence someone in your inner circle has probably talked about a meditation app or listened to a podcast about best practices — there are even meditation classes you can take at the gym — and it is safe to say meditation has become a trend. In fact, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) found meditation is the fastest growing complementary health trend — even more than yoga — since 2012. If you’ve felt the pull to jump on the bandwagon, depending on what you are hoping to get out of the practice, you may get more from going out for a run. Of course it doesn’t ever have to be an either/or proposition.
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON RUNNING
Thanks to that recent study published in Acta Psychologica in November 2018, we now have a clearer picture of exactly which cognitive functions are boosted by exercise. In the study, 101 undergraduate students were separated into random groups; one set exercised for 15 minutes and the other practiced relaxation and concentration in a controlled environment. So what exactly were they doing for meditation?
“Participants in the control group had to perform relaxation and concentration exercises,” explains Fabien D. Legrand, lead researcher who works in the Department of Psychology at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne in France. “These exercises were taken from a commercial CD-ROM program (Stress Relax®, Puzzle Concept, France) and comprised guided imagery, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and deep-breathing exercises. These exercises were delivered in group setting and took place in a teaching room with blinds down.”
Both groups took a series of tests, including the Trail Making Test — designed for the U.S. Army Individual Test Battery in 1944 — before and after their assigned activity. Those who “jogged at a ‘moderate’ intensity” significantly improved how quickly they were able to complete the test.
It is important to note the Trail Making Test is similar to a ‘connect the dots’ puzzle, and Legrand says it is used to test visual search speed and attention/concentration. However, one clinical psychologist notes the test has what are known as “practice effects.”
“This is a test where you connect numbers together as quickly as you can. It’s basically a visual scanning test that looks at pure speed of processing,” explains Robert Duff, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the Hardcore Self Help book series. “Problem is, this test has practice effects, meaning you get better at the test if you do it multiple times in a row, which they did.”
Not only did those who ran improve in the areas of “perceptual speed, visual attentional control, working memory and cognitive flexibility,” but they also noted feeling a boost of energy after exercising. Duff notes that when looking at the results of the study, it is the feeling of more energy due to exercise that accounts for increased performance, an assessment which is in line with what the authors of the study concluded.
“As mentioned in our paper, one of our major findings is that exercise improves attentional control; thus counteracting the inhibiting effect of anticipation anxiety,” Legrand continues. “However, only undergraduate students participated. Therefore, different populations need to be considered in future research, especially school-age children and adolescents.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Of course, if you are using meditation as a way to balance your mental health or benefit your overall well-being, keep doing what you’re doing. But if you are a runner who can’t get into meditation or uses it as a way to concentrate before tackling a project, you may want to add a mile or two to your training plan and get out on the roads and run. Though further testing needs to be done to find out exactly how long the brain-boosting effects of a run last, we runners can still take full advantage of that energy boost and get in the zone.