If the stress of day to day life gets to you now and again, the solution may be as simple as making sure you get a regular workout. Aside from the well-established health benefits of regular activity, new research suggests that exercise actually changes the part of our brains responsible for handling stress.
We’ve discussed what stress really does to you and how to handle it, and one thing that comes up over and over again is that you should make time to exercise. A new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience notes that when both sedentary mice and mice that were allowed and encouraged to run regularly were both put in mindly anxiety-inducing situations, the parts of the brain responsible for stress response lit up in both groups’ brains. However, the mice that were regular runners adapted quickly and were able to “cope” with the anxiety much more rapidly than the sedentary mice, who still showed signs of stress and anxiety long after their counterpart group had calmed down.
What all of this suggests, says Elizabeth Gould, director of the Gould Lab at Princeton, who wrote the paper with her graduate student Timothy Schoenfeld, now at the National Institute of Mental Health, and others, “is that the hippocampus of runners is vastly different from that of sedentary animals. Not only are there more excitatory neurons and more excitatory synapses, but the inhibitory neurons are more likely to become activated, presumably to dampen the excitatory neurons, in response to stress.” The findings were published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
It’s important to note, she adds, that this study examined long-term training responses. The runners’ wheels had been locked for 24 hours before their cold bath, so they would gain no acute calming effect from exercise. Instead, the difference in stress response between the runners and the sedentary animals reflected fundamental remodelling of their brains.
Of course, as we all know, mice are not men or women. But, Dr. Gould says, other studies “show that physical exercise reduces anxiety in humans,” suggesting that similar remodelling takes place in the brains of people who work out.
“I think it’s not a huge stretch,” she concludes, “to suggest that the hippocampi of active people might be less susceptible to certain undesirable aspects of stress than those of sedentary people.”
Ultimately, stress is stress and it has the same effect on all of us, but regular exercise can rewire our brains to make us more adaptable and flexible when we’re hit with stressful situations. Granted, the research here was conducted on mice, but even if humans are slightly different, it’s not like the benefits of exercise are in doubt — you’ll only do yourself a favour by getting active. You can read more about the study at the link below.
How Exercise Can Calm Anxiety [New York Times]
Picture: will ockenden/Flickr