Exercise and the Brain

Combat Stress, Depression, and Anxiety through Exercise

We all know that exercise is good for us, but do we really understand the nitty-gritty details of what is happening in our brain when we exercise? Studies show that by engaging in exercise for as little as one hour a day, stress and anxiety levels are reduced and individuals who suffer from depression have found some relief. Recent statistics show that 6.7% of americans are clinically depressed, 18% suffer from anxiety, and 44% report increased stress over the past four years.  In a world where we are constantly and consistently being told to do more, produce faster, and to also be balanced and healthy, no wonder stress, anxiety, and depression rates are at their current heights! The question then is, can exercise really combat these mental health struggles and if so, how?

A History of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “antidepressant rates rose by 400 percent between 1988 and 2008” Along with the immense sense of overwhelming emptiness and sadness that comes with being clinically depressed, other symptoms such as: feeling tired, weight related issues such as Type 2 Diabetes, and increased chance of heart disease are also associated with depression, making it a physical as well as a mental issue.

Did you know that anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, almost one-third of the country's $148 billion total mental health bill. With 18% of the U.S. population suffering from anxiety, and another 12% not being properly diagnosed, has anyone asked why anxiety rates continue to soar?

Research completed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that from 1983-2009 stress rates increased 18% for women and 24% for men. Research to support the increase in stress suggested that “economic pressures are greater, and it's harder to turn off information”. With continually increased economic pressure and more information being thrown at us, are stress, anxiety, and depression levels going to continue to rise or can we work to combat them?

Benefits of Exercise for Mental Health
With stress, anxiety, and depression levels rising, it is important to investigate how the brain responds to these stressors and how exercise can help to lower these levels.

  • Hippocampus- center for emotion and memory
    The Hippocampus shrinks as we age, resulting in memory loss, increased risk for Dementia, and more. However, by engaging in physical, aerobic, exercise, it has been proven that within 1-2 years, the size of the Hippocampus can increase, resulting in better and improved memory. As memory improves, anxiety of aging and stress of forgetting details lowers; resulting in higher productivity at work, and lower rates of mental decline as you age.

  • Amygdala- part of the brain associated with emotions
    This tiny part of our brain houses our primitive fight or flight responses. Many of our emotions, reactions, and response are learned habits that we can essentially re-program through, you guessed it, exercise! When faced with stressful situations, our brain will immediately respond with the path of least resistance. If you typically reach for that extra piece of chocolate cake when you have a hard deadline coming up, or you grab a pack of cigarettes when your spouse is on your last nerve, or you bottle up your emotions when you feel angry, all of these negative, self-destructive behaviors can be re-programmed by forcing yourself to go for a run, hit up a kickboxing class, lift weights at the gym, or go for a swim. A release of “happy chemicals” (which I discuss in the point below) essentially shifts you out of the “lizard brain” mentality and into higher levels of thinking.

  • “Happy Chemicals”- Responsible for putting you into a positive state of mind
    Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, and Endorphins are the quartet that triggers those feeling of happiness, positivity, and motivation. These neurochemicals are released when you do things such as: making new goals (dopamine), focus on the things you do well (serotonin), deepen relationships (oxytocin), and exercising (endorphins). By daily engaging in activities that release these “happy chemicals”, you are able to lower depression, anxiety, and stress levels and find ways to enjoy life.


Action Items to Improve Your Daily Life
We’ve seen the severity of rising stress, anxiety, and depression rates and we’ve looked at how those feelings affect our brain and that exercise truly does help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression rates. The question now is, how do I start? Below are three easy ways to get started in under one hour every day:

  1. Take a walk
    Even just walking for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night can help you shift out of a negative mindset or anxiety loop and help your brain shift into a better mindset. Change your pace throughout your walk from a stroll to a brisk pace and then back down to a stroll to increase your heart rate.

  2. Hit the weights
    Take 30 minutes to an hour every day and lift heavy weights. By lifting weights you not only increase bone density and decrease the likelihood of osteoporosis as you age, but you also get that awesome endorphin rush! Find a local gym or set up a home gym and get lifting. There are great, easy workout plans online, just be sure to start small and ask questions if you need help.

  3. Stretch
    Whether it is taking a yoga class, following along to a youtube video, or creating your own stretching routine, take 10-20 minutes every day and stretch your body out! By breathing deeply and centering yourself, you have the ability to instantly shift your mindset to a positive place. Youtube has great resources so start there if you aren’t quite sure where to begin

If stress, anxiety, or depression have been ruling your life, take back control by centering your mind, getting your body moving, and recognizing that you have the power to change your life, so start today.