A neuroscientist explains the cognitive effects of high-intensity workouts.
When I run, I think about everything. My mind wanders here and there and by the time I’m done, it often feels like I’ve found solutions for every problem I’ve ever had. There’s likely some truth to that feeling, too: Brain-imaging studies have shown that after about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, activity in the brain’s “frontal executive network system” increases; this is the region of the brain associated with things like problem-solving, decision-making, and planning. It’s empirical evidence for something every runner already knows — that the activity can help you think through the things that are troubling you. It’s why I love it. It’s also why I hate it. Sometimes, I just want to shut my mind up and lock the world out, just for a little while. This year has been a long and weird one, and so I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have somewhat recently embraced a rather specific new kind of workout: You could call it speedwork, or intervals, or the ridiculously named “fartlek” — in short, I am lately into running very, very fast. If long, slow runs provide the opportunity to think about everything, short, speedy runs give me, blessedly, a few brief moments to think about nothing. It’s like my body is working so hard that it requires the full attention of my mind, too. RELATED STORIES How Neuroscientists Explain the Mind-Clearing Magic of Running How Running and Meditation Change the Brains of the Depressed