Fake It ‘Til You Make It: How to Use Exercise to Turn Your Mind Off

Anaerobic exercise can hinder cognitive functioning—and it may just help get your internal monologue to STFU.

We have all fallen victim to the endless chatter inside our heads.

Laying in bed, staring at the ceiling with an endless to-do list running on repeat, interrupted only by a few thoughts of self doubt and rumination over that comment you made to your CEO in the elevator.

But this time of year the normal internal monologue is compounded by stress over fourth quarter deadlines at work, racking your brain for gift ideas, and kicking yourself over your TMI gossip session after a few drinks at the holiday party.

Just when you’ve convinced yourself that you have absolutely no time whatsoever to hit the gym this week—what with all the last-minute shopping and holiday parties you have to show face at—science says that is actually exactly what you should do.

For many, running is a form of active meditation. Thoughts fly through your head—from what you’re going to make for dinner to brainstorming for the upcoming project at work—with no effort whatsoever on your part. And studies have confirmed that running and meditation produce changes in the same part of the brain. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed that 30 minutes of running during the week boosted sleep quality, mood, and concentration during the day, ultimately inducing relaxation, a major benefit associated with the practice of mindfulness.

When running may be time better spent is when you actually need to work through something mentally. After 30 minutes or so of aerobic exercise, there is an increase in activity in the brain’s “frontal executive network system,” the region of the brain associated with things like problem-solving, decision-making, and planning. All of which you could definitely use a dose of when you’re in the middle of a tough assignment at work or navigating a conflict with a friend.

But what if you don’t necessarily want to solve all the world’s problems during your run? What if you seriously need to step away from it all and completely turn off that chatter altogether? Science suggests that it may be as simple as upping your speed—a lot. By adding some sprinting intervals into your jog you may just be able to get a few moments of peace and quiet.

A recent article in Science of Us delved into the cognitive effects of different levels of exercise intensity and concluded that high-intensity exercise can actually function as the volume knob to dial down that internal chatter.

This quieting of the mind is likely a byproduct of anaerobic functioning, they reported. During anaerobic exercise—short-lasting, high-intensity activity like sprinting or weight-lifting—your body doesn’t take in oxygen like it does during aerobic exercise; instead, the activity causes an oxygen deficit.

“When you have high exertion—meaning you are running flat-out in a race—you’re not going to be able to solve problems or think as well as when you are engaged in moderate exercise,” Karen Postal, an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and the president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, told Science of Us. “What we know now is that exercise is going to improve your thinking ability while you’re exercising in a certain sweet spot, and that sweet spot is moderate intensity. If it’s too low, it’s not going to improve your thinking; if it’s too high, it’s going to make it harder to do certain types of thinking.”

Which may not immediately strike you as desirable. If you’re up against a deadline at work and could really use a productive brainstorming session, head out for that steady 5-miler. You’ll likely return with a fleshed-put pitch and the perfect gift idea for your dad.

But, if you feel like your head is spinning from all of the holiday stress, a few sprinting intervals could grant you some much needed respite.

We’ll have our running sneakers on the ready during Christmas dinner when our boss sends us an email just as our mom inquires about why we’re enjoying the holidays solo yet again.

 

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