The study investigates how running affects the brain’s response to food cues

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According to research published in Mapping of the human brain.

Researchers from Loughborough University in the UK, the University of Bristol, the University of Nottingham and the University of Leicester and Waseda University in Japan have studied the impact of running on blood flow in the brain and how this affected the brain activity in relation to appetite. They found that the changes in how the participants responded to visual food cues occurred independently of overall changes in blood flow in the brain.

How much we eat is influenced by systems in the brain that are sensitive to changes in our bodies and the food environment we are in. Previous studies have shown that single bouts of exercise such as running can temporarily suppress appetite. However, we don’t fully understand the extent to which exercise affects how likely we are to eat.

Responsiveness to food cues is how our body responds to food. It’s how we react (both physically and psychologically) to the sight or smell of food, for example. Responsiveness to food cues can impact our appetite and how much we end up eating.

The study team wanted to explore whether exercise-induced blood flow changes in the brain might influence how people react to food. These changes can be captured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI scans help us assess what is happening in the brain by detecting small changes in blood flow.

For this study, twenty-three men had fMRI scans before and after 60 minutes of running or resting. During the scan, they were asked to look at three types of images ranging from low-energy dense foods like fruits and vegetables to high-energy dense foods like chocolate, as well as non-food items like furniture.

The researchers found that the exercise suppressed how participants said they felt hungry, but increased the responsiveness of multiple parts of their brains to food cues. Using a different type of fMRI, the study team also found changes in blood flow in the brain after exercise, although these changes don’t appear to affect the responsiveness signals of food cues.

Dr Alice Thackray, Senior Research Associate in Exercise Metabolism at Loughborough’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences (SSEHS) was the lead author of the study. She said: “Our findings confirm that people feel less hungry during and immediately after an exercise session and provide some insight into the short-term influence of exercise on brain appetite responses.

“Although more research is needed to determine the implications of these findings, we know that the brain plays an important role in controlling appetite and food intake. This study is part of an exciting collaboration that we plan to develop further as we continue to explore how exercise and appetite interact, including the influence on central (brain) responses.

David Stensel, Professor of Exercise Metabolism at SSEHS, added: “The role of exercise in modifying appetite and helping with weight control remains a hotly debated topic. This research shows that the way the Our brain’s response to food cues can be altered by exercise.

“The study provides a springboard for further work to characterize appetite responses to exercise more precisely and comprehensively. This, in turn, will give us a better understanding of the role of exercise in the prevention and management of exercise. ‘unhealthy weight gain’.

Dr Elanor Hinton from the University of Bristol, said: ‘This research began as a small pilot collaboration between two NIHR BRCs in Loughborough and Bristol. We are delighted that our initial plans have grown to produce this publication in Mapping of the human brain, where we shared our respective expertise. A further publication of this fruitful collaboration is now pending, demonstrating the value of collaboration between our research groups.”

More information:
Alice E. Thackray et al, Exploring the acute effects of running on cerebral blood flow and responsiveness to food cues in healthy young men using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Mapping of the human brain (2023). DOI: 10.1002/hbm.26314

About the magazine:
Mapping of the human brain

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