Can exercise help to alleviate anxiety? More and more, experts are saying it can … and are coming up with some amazing data to back their assertion that anxiety control involves not just the emotions, but the brain itself. Here’s what we found out about exercise, brain cells, and how a worked-out body can help create a calmer mind.
The Neurological Connection
When you experience anxiety, it feels emotional. Certainly it generates an emotional reaction (fear and panic). For centuries, philosophers and physicians have been recommending psychological fixes for anxiety.
But is that the whole picture? Researchers at Princeton University claim anxiety may have a physical basis – in the brain itself. And they think they may have at least one answer: according to their research, exercise actually creates brain cells, and can even regulate when they turn on and off.
How This Relates to Anxiety
According to the Princeton researchers, brain cells differ. Some, they note, are more “excitable” than others. But if too many brain cells are excitable and are firing off all at once, anxiety can be increased.
The paradox is that exercise creates more of these excitable cells. But if that’s so, then shouldn’t exercise also increase anxiety?
Not so, according to the study. The runners studied showed that the newer, younger “excitable” cells produced GABA, which can actually regulate overreaction in the brain by inhibiting overexcitability when necessary.
The runners studied still had the fire-off cells present … as stated, they in fact may have had more … yet when exposed to stress, it took a shorter period of time for them to calm down.
Correlation or Causation?
The exact mechanism of the correlation is not yet known, but the results were indisputable: non-sedentary people seem to have an easier time lessening their own anxiety, and it happens automatically, within the brain itself. In fact, the hippocampus portion of the brain of lab mice studied was notably different in active v. sedentary individuals.
Pending further study, the researchers are withholding a definitive causation (v. correlation), but according to Elizabeth Gould, director of the Gould Lab at Princeton, said, “physical exercises reduces anxiety in humans.”
Supporting Evidence and Opinions
Dr. Gould is not the only professional who believes there’s a link between anxiety (or lack of it) and exercise. In fact, there’s been a well-known correlation between the two for decades.
Exercise is believed to either boost serotonin levels, for example, or to retain more serotonin that is made by the brain, hence lifting mood and reducing anxious thoughts.
“… moderate exercise has been shown to have a significant effect on anxiety and mood,” states Dr. Marla Diebler of the Center For Emotional Health, Philadelphia.
With the supporting evidence of Dr. Gould above, the mechanism is now believed to be at least in part the creation of new brain cells. But exercise may also increase serotonin production, researchers say. And in people who create adequate serotonin but whose brains don’t process or retain it well, exercise may be a help.
So, What Form of Exercise Should You Do?
Whether it’s aerobic or non-aeorobic (think weight resistance or calisthenics) exercise that helps with anxiety, researchers are yet to have a definitive answer. However, it appears that individuals who aerobically exercised have shown a lesser anxiety response. In the absence of a definitive answer as yet, your best bet is probably some form of aerobic exercise.
Don’t worry – we’re not talking Spandex, headbands and “sweating through the pain” here. As little as 30 minutes of brisk walking or other exercise that produces a greater heartbeat and deeper breathing may be a help to anxiety sufferers.
How to Know if Your Exercise Routine is Aerobic
Different experts have differing opinions on what constitutes aerobic exercise. However, the name gives us a clue: the word aerobic literally means “in oxygen” or “oxygenated.” So what you’re looking for is exercise that makes you breathe harder.
This doesn’t mean gasping for air, doubling over in pain and sucking wind. A simple tip: you’ll know you’re producing an aerobic effect in your body during exercise if you can talk, but not sing a tune.
Fun Ways to Exercise
You’re looking to get your heart rate up here and to increase your breathing in a way that shows you’re producing a steady, but not overly taxing effort. And no … exercise should never be painful!
Try these fun ways to get in your exercise for the day:
- Walk. You’ll want to achieve a brisk, steady pace. If you’re not very fit currently, work your way up to this state; start out at a relatively easy pace, then increase your speed over the coming weeks. Choose a beautiful or very fun place to get your walking in; we love walking through our city, for instance, and seeing all the sights and activity.
- Play a team sport. Soccer, tennis, badminton … these really get your heart rate up, but they’re so enjoyable, you won’t know you’re exercising. Choose team mates in similar physical condition to yours, jump into the fray and just have fun.
- Play with your children. Children – when they’re not in front of the computer or the iPad – are amazingly physical, and it never feels like exercise to them. Why? Because they’re playing. Get right in there and run min-races with them, kick a ball around or put up a safe obstacle course in your yard and take turns.
- Dance. If you love to dance, get up and boogie! Your body and your mind will both love it. If you’re shy about dancing in public, put on your favorite tunes for 20-30 minutes and jiggle around your house. Or buy a fun dance program, like Just Dance, and challenge yourself to different steps.
- Buy a bicycle and tour your own town. Go on bike rides with your spouse, your friends or your children. Find different destinations each time; head for the coffee shop for a nice hot tea, for instance, or bike through the park.
- Get a trampoline. As Kris Kross would say, “Jump! Jump!” (Now I’m dating myself.) Be careful, have a spotter and surround the area with quality padding to land on.
It will take time for you to begin to feel the psychological effects of exercise. Don’t give up – the help you may receive for your anxiety could be immeasurable!