Just 10 Minutes of Running Improves Mood and Executive Function, Research Says

Woman running in the park

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that only 10 minutes of moderate-intensity running improves mood and benefits executive function.
  • Researchers suggest that running may provide more mental health benefits than other types of exercise.
  • However, further studies are needed to confirm this, and some experts believe that all forms of aerobic exercise provide the same mental health benefits.

The mental health benefits of exercise are well-documented, and a new study confirms that running doesn’t just improve mood, but also boosts executive function (the set of cognitive processes that control behavior, such as planning, organization, and self-control). 

University of Tsukuba researchers found that running at moderate intensity for only 10 minutes increases local blood flow to the various loci in the bilateral prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that plays a crucial role in controlling mood and executive functions. 

“Given that running is a whole-body locomotive exercise, it may confer more mental health benefits (by stimulating the brain) compared to other forms of exercise, such as cycling,” says study author Hideaki Soya, PhD, professor and director of the Laboratory of Exercise Biochemistry and Sport Neuroscience at the University of Tsukuba.

No previous studies focused solely on the neuronal responses behind running’s benefits on mood and cognition, Soya adds. So his team’s experiment set out to look at this in depth. 

The Study in Detail 

The researchers used the well-established Stroop Color-Word Test, which requires participants to view a list of words that are printed in a different color than the meaning of the word. For instance, the word “green” is printed in red. Participants name the color of the word—not the word itself—as fast as they can. It can be used to measure a person's selective attention capacity and processing speed, among other cognitive skills. 

The results show that after 10 minutes of moderate-intensity running, participants had a significant reduction in Stroop interference effect time. But that wasn’t the only benefit. 

“A 10-minute single-bout of moderate-intensity running elicits not only positive mood, but also executive function, accompanied by increased blood flow to the brain implicated in inhibitory control and mood regulation,” says Soya. 

Hideaki Soya, PhD

We hope our findings encourage people to exercise—at the very least to do 10 minutes of moderate-intensity running to keep their body and brain fit.

— Hideaki Soya, PhD

David Linden, PhD, professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins and the author of Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality, points out that these findings aren’t actually new. The main difference between this study and previous research is that they used running instead of an exercise bike, and saw slightly different patterns of brain activation afterwards, Linden notes. 

“These patterns of brain activation are merely correlates—we don’t know that they are the basis for cognitive or mood improvements,” he adds. 

Nonetheless, the researchers hope their findings may contribute to the development of a wider range of treatment recommendations to benefit mental health. “We hope our findings encourage people to exercise—at the very least to do 10 minutes of moderate-intensity running to keep their body and brain fit,” says Soya. 

Mental Health Benefits of Running 

Many runners talk about experiencing “runner’s high”—but is there any science behind it? “People feel good and accomplished after running, but euphoria is rare,” says Linden. In fact, he reveals that only about 1 in 20 people actually report euphoria from running. 

It’s an ongoing argument between scientists, he says. Some of the so-called "euphoria" is probably improved blood flow to the brain, and the production of the brain’s own marijuana-like molecules (called endocannabinoids) may also be a factor. “Endorphins were once thought to be involved, but the evidence is now trending against that hypothesis,” Linden adds.

David Linden, PhD

There’s nothing special about running. Any aerobic exercise has anti-depressive effects for people of all ages and helps reduce cognitive decline as we age.

— David Linden, PhD

Whether “runner’s high” is genuine or not, there’s solid science to back up the antidepressant effects of exercise. One systematic review, published in 2019, found that aerobic exercise improves clinically diagnosed major depression compared with antidepressant medication. 

"There’s nothing special about running," Linden says. "Any aerobic exercise has anti-depressive effects for people of all ages and helps reduce cognitive decline as we age."

What This Means For You

To get started with running, all you need is a well-fitting pair of running shoes—and good intentions! It might help to run with a friend, or join a local running group. Remember, to reap the physical and mental health benefits running has to offer, it's important to combine your sidewalk-pounding sessions with good sleep habits and a balanced, nutritious diet.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Chorphaka Damrongthai et al. Benefit of human moderate running boosting mood and executive function coinciding with bilateral prefrontal activation. Scientific Reports. 2021 Nov. doi:10.1038/s41598-021-01654-z

  2. Neuroscience News. A ten-minute run can boost brain processing.

  3. New York Times. Runner's high? Endorphins? Fiction, some scientists say.

  4. Morres ID, et al. Aerobic exercise for adult patients with major depressive disorder in mental health services: a systematic review and meta‐analysis. Depression and Anxiety. 2018 Oct. doi:10.1002/da.22842

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more.