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How Running Can Curb Your Cravings

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Kiss cravings goodbye with a sweat session. Your workout may make it easier to say “no” to bad-for-you foods, according to new research from the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Canadian researchers used a stimulation procedure, which sends a magnetic pulse, to temporarily decrease the brain activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) of women who naturally had strong sweet and salty cravings. “The DLPFC is a brain structure located on the outer layer of the brain, toward the front,” explains lead study author Peter Hall, Ph.D. The research team looked specifically at the left DLPFC, which is involved in reflexive responses and internal drives, like hunger triggered by images or smells.

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When Hall’s team stimulated the DLPFC, it decreased activity in this region of the brain and the women reported stronger cravings for the high-calorie chocolate milk and potato chips. In fact, after the stimulation, the participants zoned in almost exclusively on the high-calorie snacks, mostly ignoring the less indulgent foods also available.

So if decreasing activity in the DLPFC throws self-control out the window, the key to resisting those Cheetos lies in increasing your brain’s activity. “One of the most well documented ways of optimizing activity of the DLPFC is through aerobic exercise,” Hall says. A 2013 study in the British Medical Journal found that short bouts of exercise—roughly 20 minutes a day—improved blood and oxygen flow to the pre-frontal cortex, and helped improve self-control in people of all ages.

Whether running, biking, or walking is better for DLPFC activity, though, is still up in the air. “There is not enough research on this just yet. We can only say that aerobic activities work, but there is some evidence that strength training and yoga may also help—although the latter could also be due to the meditative aspect,” Hall explains. And the longer you keep the healthy habit up, the better your self-control will become, he adds. Just another reason to prioritize today’s workout—even if all you can afford is a 20 minute sweat session.

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