As the world starts to open back up, Canadians are getting back on planes for work, leisure and of course, to run destination races. Travelling is fun, but can be exhausting, particularly when changing time zones. Jet lag is both a psychological and biological phenomenon, and it can have a real impact on your physical and mental performance. The good news is, research says running can help counter these effects, so you can enjoy your trip without the side effects.
There is a small cluster of cells in your brain that receive information about how light it is outside from your optic nerves, which tells your brain to release the hormone melatonin and make you sleepy. When you travel to a different time zone (or work a night shift) it affects your circadian rhythms, which are impacted by light and darkness. Unfortunately, there are no good treatments available for jet lag, but research has found that exercise may counter the negative effects of circadian rhythm disruption.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Physiology measured the circadian rhythms of 99 “aerobically fit” participants aged 18 to 75 over five and a half days. During that time, they all did one hour of moderate treadmill exercise for three consecutive days at one of eight different times during the day or night. The scientists determined each participant’s baseline body clock by measuring their melatonin levels in a series of urine tests.
By taking samples from the participants every 90 minutes, the researchers could see the precise times when the participants’ melatonin levels rose and fell throughout the day. When participants exercised at 7 a.m. or between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., it shifted their circadian rhythm to an earlier time, but when they exercised between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., their body clocks were pushed back.
This study proves that exercise can be a useful tool for helping your body adjust to a change in time zones. “This is the first study to compare exercise’s effects on the body clock, and could open up the possibility of using exercise to help counter the negative effects of jet lag and shift work,” said Shawn Youngstedt, lead author of the study.
In other words, if you’re traveling east (say to Europe or even further) and you’re trying to get yourself to stay up later, try going for a run later in the day when you arrive, to push your circadian rhythm back and get you onto the new time zone. When you come back home, try running early in the morning or early afternoon to readjust back onto your usual schedule.