The Exercise Pill

How exercise can help your brain stay healthy and protect you against anxiety & depression

It’s been well documented that regular exercise has many benefits to our physical health, from helping to build and maintain muscles, to keeping our bones strong & healthy, to making our cardiovascular system function optimally and boosting metabolism. What’s not as well known is how regular exercise benefits the brain as well as the rest of the body.

In a recent article, Dr. Arah Javanbakht, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Wayne State University, writes that regular exercise, especially cardio, really does change the brain’s biology in some very beneficial ways.

Dr. Javanbakht explains that the brain is actually a very plastic organ, not only forming new neuronal connections daily but also generating new cells in important regions of the brain such as the hippocampus. The hippocampus is involved in memory and learning functions as well as the regulation of negative emotions.

A protein known as brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF, is found in the brain and spinal cord. BDNF plays an important role in the growth, maturation and maintenance of neurons (nerve cells). It is active at the connection between nerve cells, called synapses, where cell-to-cell communication occurs. These synapses can change over time in response to experiences, a characteristic called synaptic plasticity. BDNF helps to regulate synaptic plasticity, which has an important role in learning and memory. BDNF has also been shown to speed brain injury recovery.

Regular exercise, particularly cardio, bathes the brain in BDNF, helping to stimulate neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells) and improve cognitive function. Studies have shown that a variety of aerobic and high-intensity interval training exercises significantly increase BDNF levels – by up to threefold!

Even moderate cardio exercise – 30 minutes three times a week – can produce positive effects. Moderate exercise seems to regulate the immune system and reduce excessive inflammation. This is important, as growing literature indicates a link between inflammation and a host of anxiety and fear-based disorders, including PTSD, phobias, anxiety and panic disorders.

And there is also evidence that exercise has positive effects on neurotransmitters dopamine and endorphins that are involved in positive mood and motivation.

The effects of exercise on measurable brain function and symptoms of anxiety and depressions has been studied by researchers. Exercise has been shown to improve cognitive performance, memory function and academic achievement, and even has a moderate positive effect on symptoms of depression that is comparable to psychotherapy.

Dr. Javanbakht and his colleagues conducted a study among refugee children who attended 8 to 12 weeks of dance and movement therapies, and found there was a reduction in symptoms of PTSD and anxiety these children had been experiencing.

There are other potential positive effects of regular exercise beside the neurological benefits. Whether running, riding a bike or simply walking, you will get exposure to sunlight, fresh air and nature. Regular workouts at a gym may lead making new friends who become part of a supportive social network. Exercise can also function as a form of mindfulness practice, and provide a healthy break from time spent on our electronic devices and watching television.

Dr. Javanbakht suggests choosing an exercise activity that you enjoy. Try a diverse array of activities and see which ones you like best. Running, walking, biking, weights, boxing, kayaking and even dancing all provide benefits. You might want to find like-minded exercise partners to keep yourself motivated, and you can do online workouts if you are uncomfortable going to the gym during a pandemic.

Dr. Javanbakht’s prescription is take your exercise pill, even if you’re not feeling anxious or depressed – it will help protect your brain!

Promise Pharmacy hopes you stay happy and healthy!

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