Can you run off a bad mood? New facial scanner tool measures impact of exercise on your mind

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(Picture: ASICS)

How good is exercise for your mind, really?

The idea that exercise can help to boost our mental health is nothing new – the benefits of moving more are well documented in helping to treat depression, reduce anxiety, improve self-esteem, memory and thinking skills.

For the average armchair athlete though, it’s almost impossible to quantify just how much an exercise session can boost the mind: we get it in theory, but wouldn’t it be interesting – and motivating – to understand exactly what mental boost we get from each run, yoga or cardio session? 

Enter ASICS, who have devised a new tool that allows us to track the effects we actually get from exercise, thanks to research carried out by San Francisco bioinformatics company EMOTIVE and Dr Brendon Stubbs, exercise and mental health researcher at King’s College London

Six months of research with elite and everyday athletes using EEG (or the less catchily-titled electroencephalogram, a recording of brain activity) and self-report data collection found that the ‘runners high’ we get is more complex than just an endorphin boost – and much more multifactorial than one hormone.

(Picture: ASICS)

The findings indicate that just 20 minutes of exercise improves mood across a range of cognitive and emotional metrics, including positivity, calm, alertness, confidence, focus, resilience and composure.

The results showed that after a 20-minute run, runners had a 13% increase in levels of alertness, a 16% increase in feeling calm, a 14% increase in how content they felt, a 13% increase in relaxation levels, an 11% increase in how composed they felt and a 10% increase in energy levels.  

Working with creative technology lab Solarflare Studios, the scientists turned these findings into a motivational tool to help get all of us moving more.

Using a combination of facial scanning technology and self-reported data collection, the tool – called ASICS Uplifter – will allow everyday athletes (or reluctantly reforming couch potatoes) to see the impact of sport on their own mind, capturing the impact of different exercises across these 10 emotional and cognitive metrics.

The tool takes a reading of emotions and brain function pre- and post-exercise, showing how the sport you have chosen has impacted your mood and brain function.  

First you scan your face, then answer a series of questions about your mindset and emotional state (eg, how calm do you feel on a scale of 1-10). After the exercise, you carry out the same steps – resulting in a percentage score across each metric.

The facial scan technology doesn’t take a photo as it scans, instead it registers expression (Picture: Asics)

Early results suggest that improvements – many substantial – are systematically found in all 10 areas. And these results are more noticeable and longer lasting for those who don’t exercise regularly, which is heartening news to anyone creakily trying to lift themselves off the sofa for the first time in 18 months. 

‘With exercise playing such a valuable role in maintaining our mental health and wellbeing, it is more important than ever that people can see and understand the positive link between the two,’ said Dr Stubbs. ‘Our preliminary research findings outline the profound impact that something as simple as a 20-minute run can have on our minds.’

Although the scientists used EEG to create the tool, they have managed to nail the formula to allow the tool to work outside the lab. When they compare those lab findings with the tool’s self-reported data and scan, the result was over 90% accurate.

From 1 July, this wellbeing data can be synchronised with a global network, resulting in what ASICS is calling a ‘World Uplift Map’. In essence, this is a dynamic map that will take all the mood data from exercisers all over the world and display it by region, allowing us to see the collective mood of cities, nations and the world as a whole. 

The visuals show as lighter or darker, depending on mood, with the resulting maps a way to register benefits or your efforts at a glance – and to inspire us to get out there and move. 

Try it at minduplifter.asics.com.



WHY RUNNING IS GOOD FOR YOUR MENTAL HEALTH

During an event-related bout of depression some years ago, ASICS FrontRunner Stefano Maiorana’s motivation sunk extremely low. ‘I didn’t leave the house for extended periods,’ he says, explaining how running helped him through. ‘At that point exercise helped me overcome my mental state and made me feel better in most aspects of my life.’

On a nationwide scale, depression affects just over 25% of people – and while many people vouch for treating depression with running, the method has only gained scientific credibility in the past decade.

On the outside, depression is characterised by symptoms including sadness, discouragement, irritability, disturbed sleep and appetite, feeling helpless, low energy, and the tendency to stay indoors and avoid social interactions. 

On the inside, a depressed person’s brain may show lowered hippocampus volume, and altered levels of serotonin and noradrenaline. 

While there is some truth that there is a chemical imbalance at play, depression can spring from other sources such as genetic predispositions, and poor mood regulation by the brain. 

That’s not to say that chemicals aren’t involved in the process, but rather that there are tons of other chemicals (eg dopamine, acetylcholine), and environmental factors that make up the dynamic processes that give rise to mood.

According to Stefano’s research and the input from various experts, he has learned that the most prominent antidepressants act by increasing levels of mood-enhancing compounds such as serotonin and noradrenaline. ‘The constant release of these chemicals over extended periods results in neural growth in the hippocampus – a central brain region involved in emotion regulation. That is why it takes at least a few weeks for people on antidepressants to experience a response. In a similar vein, repeated aerobic exercise may alleviate depression over a sustained period of time.’

Interestingly, running produces some key effects of antidepressants by boosting serotonin and noradrenaline, which in turn stimulates growth of new neurons in the hippocampus after consistent training sessions. Read more about it on Stefano’s blog.

Do you have a story to share? We want to hear from you.

Get in touch: metrolifestyleteam@metro.co.uk.

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