For any of you who have experienced a ‘runner’s high’ or endorphin rush while exercising you know how powerful the feeling can be. But there are many more chemicals at play than just endorphins and they can do much more than just make you temporarily feel good. Regular exercise can help you combat high levels of stress and anxiety.
In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain the authors explain how exercise can become your best medicine.
Aside from elevating endorphins, exercise regulates all of the neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants. For starters, exercise immediately elevates levels of norepinephrine, in certain areas of the brain. It wakes up the brain and gets it going and improves self-esteem, which is one component of depression.”
“Another factor from the body that comes into play here is the atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP). Produced by the muscles of the heart itself when it’s really pumping, ANP travels through the bloodstream and into the brain, where it helps to further moderate the stress response and reduce noise in the brain. It’s a potent part of a cascade of chemicals that relieve emotional stress and reduce anxiety. Along with pain-blunting endorphins and endocannabinoids, the increase in ANP helps explain why you feel relaxed and calm after a moderate aerobic workout. When you talk about burning off stress, these are the elements at work.
We all know that chronically high levels of stress is very unhealthy but did you know that it can actually destroy the connections between nerve cells in the brain?
If mild stress becomes chronic, the unrelenting cascade of cortisol triggers genetic actions that begin to sever synaptic connections and cause dendrils to atrophy and cells to die; eventually, the hippocampus can end up physically shriveled, like a raisin.
But this process can also be reversed.
Studies show that if researchers exercise rats that have been chronically stressed, that activity makes the hippocampus grow back to it’s pre-shriveled state
It’s important to note that while a lot of stress is bad, a little stress can be very good. Physical fitness is one discipline which has always advocated introducing controlled stress to your system. That is, after all, how we break down and build up our muscles. The neurons in our brains benefit from a bit of stress in the same way our muscles do.
What’s gotten lost amid all the advice about how to reduce the stress of modern life is that challenges are what allow us to strive and grow and learn. The parallel on the cellular level is that stress sparks brain growth. Assuming that the stress is not too severe and that the neurons are given time to recover, the connections become stronger and our mental machinery works better.
To get the most mental benefit from your exercise program ideally you need to spend some time pushing yourself and getting a bit outside of your comfort zone.
Psychologically, this is where you ‘confront the self,’ in the words of my colleague Robert Pyles… By going beyond where you thought you could, straining and stressing and lingering in that pain for even just a minute or two, you sometimes transcend into a rarefied state of mind, in which you feel like you can conquer any challenge. If you’ve ever experienced the phenomenon of runner’s high, it probably came in response to a near maximum effort on your part. The euphoric feeling is likely due to the mixture of extremely high levels of endorphins, ANP, endocannabinoids and neurotransmitters pumping through your system at this intensity. It’s the brain’s way of blocking everything else out so you can push through the pain and make the kill.
You also need to build a routine. The stability of a routine can have dramatic effects on your mood and motivation.
Exercise immediately increases levels of dopamine and if you stay on some sort of schedule, the brain cells in your motivation center will sprout new dopamine receptors, giving you new found initiative.
Lastly, exercising at a moderate intensity serves another important function; it helps take out the trash.
Inside your brain cells, the higher activity level triggers the release of metabolic cleanup crews, producing proteins and enzymes that dispose of free radicals, broken bits of DNA, and inflammation factors that can cause the cells to rupture if left unchecked.
Okay, maybe I won’t skip yoga tonight.