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A woman smiling outside while wearing workout clothing
Credit: Getty Images / Luis Alvarez

'Tis the season to be overbooked. From holiday parties to gift shopping to cookie baking and beyond, it can feel like you're so short on time that you're sprinting from one thing to the next. Talk about stressful!

But you need not sprint—and don't need to carve out a ton of time—to check two items off your list. To improve your mood and score heart-healthy benefits, a mere 10 minutes of running might do the trick, according to a new study published on November 22nd in the journal Scientific Reports.

Just 10 minutes of moderate-intensity running was linked to better mood, stronger executive function within the brain (which means attention, memory, planning abilities, organization and impulse control are all sharper) as well as increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex.

Previous research has shown that exercise is a boon for mental health, and might even make certain people happier than earning more money. And countless studies have proven that running is a quick, efficient and effective way to improve heart health, longevity, bone strength and muscular strength and endurance. All of the above are even more true when you pair running with strength training.

This study added to the mounting evidence that you don't need to run a marathon to score major body and brain benefits. (ICYMI, doing a micro workout can boost fat metabolism by 43%—here's how to do it.) After 26 participants ran on a treadmill for 10 minutes at a moderate intensity, a group of scientists at the University of Tsukuba in Japan studied:

  • Brain images, which showed increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex after running compared to rest. This is likely due to the coordination and balance required, as well as better blood circulation.
  • Executive function via the "Stroop task," which asks participants to, as quickly as possible, say the name of a color they see when said color is the hue of text that names a different color. (Seeing a purple card that reads "pink" in text can confuse the brain.) Those who ran were able to answer significantly faster, possibly because of speedier brain signals.
  • A Two-Dimensional Mood Scale questionnaire, which was completed before and after running and resting sessions. After running, individuals had markedly better mood and reported feeling more pleasure and arousal compared to after resting for the same amount of time.

"The results surprised us, in that 10 minutes of moderate running enhances not only executive function but also pleasant mood coinciding with bilateral prefrontal activation," authors Chorphaka Damrongthai and Professor Hideaki Soya tell Medical News Today. "Based on previous studies, including our own, physical exercise has been revealed to increase executive function by predominantly activating the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is a brain locus implicated in inhibitory and mood control, without reporting change of pleasant mood."

Almost all of these studies focused on biking rather than running, though, and this one found that running—thanks to its weight-bearing nature—might be even better as a mood-booster and to improve brain function.

While the findings that this totally free and speedy form of exercise can be a boon to mental health, the authors point out a few caveats:

  • The study only included 26 participants; quite a small number to make a universal conclusion.
  • The mood states were self-reported, and might be a bit biased.
  • Running was not compared to other weight-bearing exercise formats, such as dancing, walking or jumping rope.
  • This was not a longitudinal study, which means it tracked a distinct point in time rather than testing whether daily 10-minute runs over, say, one year, affected the results more or less.

That said, the researchers tell Medical News Today that "we would like to encourage people, especially vulnerable people, to keep their body and brain fit using our minimal exercise model" since 10 minutes of moderate-intensity running "is an easily accessible form of exercise requiring minimal equipment."

If you want to give this mood-boosting exercise option a go, gear up with one of these best shoes every type of workout, according to a podiatrist and fuel wisely with these tips for what to eat before, during and after a workout.