- Aerobic exercise, like running, can help your brain recover from mental exhaustion or burnout, according to new research.
- This may be because this type of exercise provides recovery for your cognitive processes and nervous system so they can function more effectively.
Stress, overwork, and super packed schedules can all contribute to cognitive overload, leaving you feeling emotionally drained and easily overwhelmed. This is mental exhaustion, a state that can lead to burnout if it becomes chronic—and that, in turn, puts you higher risk for a range of health issues like diabetes and heart disease.
Strategies that rely on distraction, like watching TV, have been shown to be non-effective, according to a new study in the journal Physiology & Behavior. But, as it turns out, a single session of aerobic exercise can seriously help.
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Researchers asked 99 healthy adults to perform 60 minutes of cognitively demanding test to induce mental exhaustion. Then, they split them into three groups: One did 30 minutes of moderate exercise on a stationary bike, the second did 30 minutes a simple lower-body stretching routine, and the third watched a 30-minute sitcom.
After the half hour, all were assessed for mood, tiredness, restlessness, self-perceived cognitive capacity, motivation, and cognitive flexibility performance. Those in the exercise group showed significantly better recovery in many of these areas, including mood and cognitive flexibility.
This isn’t the first time a single bout of moderate-intensity aerobic activity has been associated with a mental respite. A previous, small study that also used 30 minutes of exercise showed improvements in memory, reasoning, and organization.
The mechanism is likely related to how even half an hour of activity can improve central nervous system response, according to the recent study’s co-author, Philipp Zimmer, Ph.D., a researcher in the Institute for Sport and Sport Science at TU Dortmund University in Germany. He told Runner’s World that mentally demanding tasks can overload that system, as well as lower cognitive performance overall.
“Exercise provides what’s called a cognitive regeneration strategy,” he said. “Basically, it provides recovery for your cognitive processes and nervous system so they can function more effectively.”
In addition to giving you relief from short-term mental exhaustion, exercise done regularly can also help “tone” these cognitive processes over time. For example, a study looking at marathon runners compared to sedentary people over a six-month time frame found that running improved the way the central nervous system affects blood flow—including to the brain.
That study’s co-author, Astrid Röh, M.D., in the Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics at the University of Augsburg in Germany, told Runner’s World that research indicates keeping your central nervous system strong and your mental faculties sharp requires a combination of strategies.
“Regular, consistent exercise together with brief acute bouts of strenuous exercise is most effective when it comes to cognitive improvements,” she said. “That’s what primes the central nervous system.”
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness, and food.