Barefoot Running Improves Working Memory

Your purpose in going out on a run probably isn’t to improve your working memory, but according to a recent study this may be a bonus as long as you are willing to run barefoot.

Working memory is an aspect of brain function that stores bits of information for short-term use. It is the part of memory that helps us remember directions to a location, a phone number before dialing, or a mental list of items to pick up at the grocery store. Not only does the brain store these bits of information, but working memory allows you to manipulate the information to solve problems and perform cognitive tasks. Some researchers suggest thinking of working memory as a “mental blackboard” or a “mental sticky note” for remembering and processing short-term knowledge.

Your working memory’s capacity doesn’t reflect how much you know, but can be considered a measure of your potential to gain knowledge. The mental workspace is vital for concentration, math, language, and reading skills acquisition. Some scholars suggest working memory scores are more valuable in understanding a student’s learning outcome than IQ.

The idea of improving working memory seems simple, but actually producing long-term capacity gain is difficult. A meta-analytic review of 23 studies on working memory training programs found the effects were only short-term. This could be especially true after the age of 15 when the working memory capacity and structure is fully developed.

A process called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) has been shown to improve working memory. During this treatment used on both healthy and clinical subjects, low-intensity currents stimulate different parts of the brain. One type of stimulation increases neuronal activity while the other decreases it. Researchers are examining whether tDCS treatment while completing working memory tasks would enhance its effects. Even though this form of brain stimulation is painless and non-invasive, it is still not an approved procedure by the FDA.

Research performed at the University of Florida suggests stimulation to the feet or the increased concentration required while running barefoot as possible means of improving memory. The study examined the running patterns of 72 participants ages 18 through 44. Participant’s working memory was tested before a 16 minute run at a self-determined pace and again after. During the run, participants were directed to step on targets placed around a running track. They ran the course once with and once without shoes. Results showed an almost 16% increase in working memory after participants ran barefoot. Though speed was similar in both conditions, participants had an increased heart rate along with the higher working memory scores while barefoot.

The results of the running exercise align with other research on the effects of aerobic exercise. One study measuring cognition after moderate exercise found a positive correlation between aerobic exercise and cognition. The results also suggested that people who are more physically fit may have longer lasting improved executive brain function. Others studies with adolescents and older females had similar results connecting improved mental processes with exercise. Study after study seem to support the idea that exercise affects the brain’s executive control, thus improving working memory.

The most fascinating part of the University of Florida Study is that while there was a significant increase in working memory during the barefoot experiment, no significant change was found while participants wore shoes. Though many other experiments seem to support aerobic exercise as improving executive brain function, the positive effects of running barefoot seems to involve other factors than just exercise.

A closer look at how working memory functions may provide the answer of the gap in results between barefoot and shoed runners. The working memory system is typically divided into two subgroups- Visuo-Spacial and Phonological. In other words, we use our ears and eyes to gather information to store in working memory. In general, this idea of using sound and sight for memory doesn’t seem to align with the process of running barefoot. However, improved working memory results occurred only when barefoot runners had to step on specific targets. The outcome suggests extra stimulation to the visuo-spacial or seeing aspect of working memory. This study backs up the idea of a need for added concentration while running barefoot in order to avoid stepping on hazardous objects.

Even so, the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Ross Alloway, believes it is possible that the extra physical stimuli from running barefoot may require increased use of the memory. This study along with other studies on movement may lead to a better understanding of additional working memory subsystems beyond just audio and visual.

For many people, the feeling of dirt between the toes is grounding and therapeutic. The research done at the University of Florida suggests there may be even more benefits to going barefoot, especially if you are willing to increase your walk to a jog. Barefoot running can increase your heart rate, improving circulation throughout your body. Thanks to the added concentration, you will also stimulate your brain. So next time you think your memory is starting to slip, maybe it’s time for a satisfying barefoot run. If you decide to ditch the shoes, be sure to increase your focus to avoid stepping on objects that could hurt your foot. Also, take it slow. Let your body get used to the changed impact of being shoeless. Oh, and maybe invest in a good pumice stone.

For years, Kevin Jones has written for NordicTrack, Proform, and number of larger fitness-specific websites, lending his expertise and research in nutrition and physical activity. As a husband and father of two, Kevin has grown to love helping his family stay healthy and active together. Connect with him online; LinkedIn – Twitter