How exercise changes the brain


When working with clients who have anxiety or depression I ask them to do some hard exercise at least once a day.

My reason for asking that is that I know that exercise improves mood. Several studies show that 30 minutes daily aerobic exercise was as – if not more – effective than anti-depressants in depressed patients. We also know that exercise fosters endorphin release – which counteracts anxiety.

Three years ago a study at Princeton University showed how exercise triggered neurogenesis – the growth of new brain cells which were resistant to stress. One group of rats who exercised on a running board daily for six weeks were compared with another group which had not. Both groups were then given a stressful ordeal (they were forced to swim in cold water, which rats hate to do). The rats which had been allowed to exercise proved to be far more resilient than the others. And brain scans showed why. The ‘exercise group’ had grown new neurons which were not switched on by stress and kept the rats calm.

The same applies to humans too. In one study on patients with Parkinson’s disease it was shown that regular exercise also created neurogenesis. Given that Parkinson’s disease leads to the gradual death of specific neurons this finding indicates that exercise reduces your chances of developing it. If you are growing new brain cells faster than they can be killed off that means you will reverse, or at least slow down, the ageing process.

So if you want to get rid of anxiety or depression – or if you just want a new brain – then get your running shoes on.

Image by mikebaird

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