It’s common knowledge that exercise is a critical component to a healthy lifestyle. We know that exercise beneficial for our bodies, as it increases lung capacity and endurance, fights disease, and builds muscle mass. Did you also know that it also has a positive physiological effect on the growth and development of our brains? Exercise can help contribute to our emotional wellbeing.
Last year, the New York Times published the article, “How Exercise can Calm the Brain.” In this article, New York Times reviewed the findings of two studies published in The Journal of Neuroscience and made free to the public on National Center for Biotechnology Information website. The purpose of this blog is to share what was discussed in the New York Times about the study.
Multiple studies have revealed that exercise is able to create highly energized and active brain cells and turn them off in order to become calm. Exercise prompts the creation of new young brain cells that are highly excitable. Easily excitable brain cells are great for memorization and quick thinking, but can also lead to an increase in anxiety and stress through a brain that cannot turn off. How then does exercise prompt the growth of excitable young brain cells that could easily induce anxiety, while also reducing stress and creating calm?
Researches who have studied exercise were unsure how exercise could stimulate the brain while also calming it down. Scientists at Princeton conducted a study on mice to see if they could shed any light on this mystery. Here is what they discovered in a nutshell:
- For six weeks the mice were divided into two groups. Both were given cages that has places that were well lit and had shadowy corners. One group had a wheel they could run on as they pleased. The other did not have a wheel. The scientists measured each groups baseline nervousness.
- The mice with the wheel (runners) were more willing to explore and spend time in the open. An indication that there were more confident and less anxious than the mice without exercise.
- The brains of the runners had lots of new neurons. The sedentary mice also had new neurons but not as many.
- The runner’s’ brains had developed more neurons that are created to calm the brain’s activity by releasing the calming neurotransmitter GABA. GABA is “an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is often referred to as “nature’s VALIUM-like substance”. When GABA is out of range (high or low excretion values), it is likely that an excitatory neurotransmitter is firing too often in the brain. GABA will be sent out to attempt to balance this stimulating over-firing” (www.neurogistics.com).
- Runners had many new cells in the ventral region of the hippocampus, these are believed to help process emotions.
- The scientists tested the mice’s behavior and neurological reactions to anxiety by placing them in ice-cold water for five minutes. Mice dislike water and find immersion high stressful, although it is not life-threatening. The brain’s of both groups became highly emotional. However the runners brains calmed quicker than the sedentary mice. It appeared that having more cells to release the neurotransmitter GABA was able to better calm the excitable new brain cells. This lead to the runners being stressed for less time than the sedentary mice.
The New York times article quoted, Elizabeth Gould, the director of the Gould Lab at Princeton and author of the studies paper. She said, “ 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.” Dr. Gould also said “I think it’s not a huge stretch to suggest that the hippocampi of active people might be less susceptible to certain undesirable aspects of stress than those of sedentary people.”
Who doesn’t want more neurons to help processes emotions and thoughts quickly? Additionally, who wouldn’t want to have the mental ability to calm our minds after a stressful and emotionally distressing event has passed? We don’t simply exercise to have a more shapely and strong body. We exercise for a intelligent and emotionally calm minds.
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Supplemental reading: www.sciencedirect.com