Exercise Your Way To A Better Brain

Exercise Your Way To A Better Brain
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By Blake Alec Miranda, Clinical Research Coordinator, YASSALAB

Mood disorders like depression, anxiety and chronic stress can cripple your daily life, and spell disaster for your health. You or one of your family or friends may be directly affected, like one in five people in the USA, about 20% of the US’ entire population will be diagnosed with a mood disorder over the course of their lives, according to surveys by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Many different approaches can help you lead a happier, healthier life — even though these disorders are serious and potentially life-threatening. Cognitive-behavioral therapies with a counsellor plus medication have been standard. A new form of treatment with fewer side-effects which works immediately has delivered promising results recently, though. Exercise has been shown to reduce the effects of depression and anxiety and protect against cognitive decline. It can even improve your ability to handle high-stress events, such as life transitions, physical injury and workplace stress.

First, we need to understand what we’re dealing with when we talk about mood and exercise. The neuroscience of physical fitness is an exciting, rapidly developing research topic that is set to change the way we treat mood disorders.

What do you do when your body is unhealthy? You might take medicine, go to physical therapy, and try any and all remedies to alleviate the pain, depending on the circumstance. Eventually, you will feel better, stop treatment, and go about your life until the next time you’re feeling ill. It’s a simple story, and one that you’re all too familiar with if you’ve ever been to the doctor for any reason at all.

But how about when your brain is “unhealthy”? When we’re depressed, anxious or chronically stressed, especially when pharmaceutical interventions can come with a multitude of unwanted side effects, we have difficulties answering this question.

Mental health professionals are quick to prescribe counseling services, pills, or lifestyle changes, but the issue is not as clear-cut as treatment for physical ailments. Physicians do their best to prescribe effective treatment in line with the current research, but changing mental health may require changing entire lifestyles.

Regardless, mental health issues are on the rise, and they can have devastating effects on your way of life. The National Institute of Mental Health found that over 17.3 million adults in the United States reported experiencing at least one major depressive episode in 2017. The total economic burden of treating major depression was approximately $210.5 billion in 2010, which accounted for days missed at work, reduced productivity and costs related to pharmaceutical treatment. It’s clear that we need substantial, lasting interventions for our emotional and economic sakes.

Imagine that amazing feeling you get after a hard workout. It’s a great feeling, one that keeps you going back to the gym throughout the week. Your breathing is easier and your body is light; it also feels like your mood has improved. The problems that followed you into the gym, or on your run, now seem a distant memory.

Even if you’ve never seriously trained, you can benefit from exercise’s mood-boosting properties. The immediate effects you feel are the result of endorphins in your brain. (These chemicals in our brains cause feelings of euphoria in the short term.) But the long-term benefits of improved mood come from physiological changes in the outer layer of your brain, the cerebral cortex. This is because your brain is undergoing significant molecular and structural alterations as a result of your exercise routine. These neurobiological developments signal the newest frontier for treating depression, anxiety, and stress.

Neuroscientists have studied the role of exercise on improving mood since the turn of the century. Yet, the jury was still out on exercise’s effectiveness in the long-term, especially in the aging brain. The literature largely focused on exercise’s role in our heart health — only scratching the surface of exercise’s role in helping our bodies live life to the fullest.

Recent clinical studies have found that exercise can have immediate — and lasting — effects on our brains. Neuroscientists today are designing a “prescription” for exercise meant to work together with pills, tailored to your specific activity level and age group. This leaves us with a few questions about incorporating exercise into our lives:

  • What’s happening to my brain when I exercise?
  • Are these mood changes immediate and permanent?
  • Can I reap the benefits of exercise at any age?

Current research into the neuroscience of exercise shows physical activity can not only invigorate your muscles, but also change your brain chemistry in permanent ways. Exercise shows promising effects on mood, attention and memory. Your physical exertion results in impactful changes to your neuroanatomy. We’ll show you how we use this information to develop your own personal exercise routine — maximizing the mood-boosting advantages of physical activity.

Our brains are powerful supercomputers that are governed by neurons, synapses and neurotransmitters. We have over 100 billion neurons in our brains, alone. Neurons are cells that have three components: a cell body, axons and dendrites; axons emit signals, while dendrites receive them.

Neurons communicate with one another using electrochemical signals. Our neurons emit electric “spikes” allowing the transfer of chemicals (called neurotransmitters) between the axon of one neuron, and the dendrite of another. The space between a communicating dendrite and axon is known as the synapse. That’s right, our neurons don’t touch each other. (With a few exceptions, but we won’t go down that rabbit hole in this article.)

Your entire brain and behaviors are controlled by the efficiency of your neurons to communicate with one another. Damage to this delicate framework is the root cause of many mental health disorders. This damage can be the result of physical trauma or errors in the communication of our neurotransmitters. Too much or too little of a neurotransmitter can spell disaster for your brain.

The relationship between exercise, mood and neuroscience is complex. You’ll need to understand how our brains are broken down into distinct chemicals and functional areas.

  • Dopamine — the pleasure chemical, associated with learning and euphoria.
  • Serotonin — the content chemical, associated with feelings of well-being and memory.
  • Glutamate — plays a role in learning, memory and plasticity (more on this later!).
  • GABA — plays a role in emotional processing.
  • Hippocampus — long-term memory; exists across both sides of the brain and looks like a seahorse.
  • Amygdala — emotional memory system, and impairment of the amygdala correlates with heightened feelings of anxiety and fear.
  • Frontal cortex — the front-most part of our brain, associated with personality, decision-making, and thought.

Would you tell a cancer patient to “get over it”? Probably not, and the same should go for depressed, anxious and chronically stressed individuals. This struggle is as much a serious biological illness as it is a psychological one. It deserves the same quality of medical attention as any other disease.

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is defined by a persistent low mood uncharacteristic of the individual and lasting at least two weeks. While you can probably relate to feelings of sadness and low mood, MDD is very different from just sadness. If you have felt extremely fatigued, lost interest in your hobbies, were hypersensitive to stress and chronically unfocused, you may have experienced a depressive episode. Suicidal thoughts coincide with severe depressive episodes.

Suicide following depression is the leading cause of preventable death among 15- to 29-year-olds, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) . Researchers at the University of California, Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory found depressed individuals performed significantly worse on tests of working memory. This highlights the impact depression has on multiple aspects of thinking.

Anxiety disorders refer to a group of clinically significant symptoms causing prolonged feelings of panic, dread or phobia. Anxiety is thought to be the most common psychiatric ailment facing human beings. An estimated 13.3% of individuals in the United States are being diagnosed with some form of generalized anxiety, according to studies.

Chronic stress is a bit trickier to define. It’s important to distinguish between necessary stress that we use to solve problems and chronic and debilitating stress which interferes with our ability to function in the world. If you’re stressed for a prolonged period of time, your memory, attention and mood take a massive nosedive.

Commonly thought of only as psychological ailments, depression, anxiety and chronic stress are neurological diseases. They change the brains of sufferers. Remember those neurotransmitters we introduced earlier? They play a role in each of these disorders. Depression is thought to be related to errors in dopamine and serotonin production: too little serotonin in the synapse can lead to depressive symptoms, for example. Anxiety and stress are related to errors in the most common neurotransmitters affecting mood and nervous system health (glutamate and GABA).

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