Exercise keeps the brain healthy and protects against depression and anxiety
Working out regularly changes the brain biology and produces new brain cells, helping to keep the organ healthy and protect humans against depression and anxiety.
“Regular exercise, especially cardio, does change the brain,” says Dr. Arash Javanbakht, an associate professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.
“Contrary to what some may think, the brain is a very plastic organ. Not only are new neuronal connections formed every day, but also new cells are generated in important areas of the brain. One key area is the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory and regulating negative emotions,” he wrote in The Conversation, a nonprofit news site.
A variety of aerobic and high-intensity interval training exercises significantly increase the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which help the brain produce neurons, or brain cells.
There is evidence from animal research that these changes are at epigenetic level, which means these behaviors affect how genes are expressed, leading to changes in the neuronal connections and function.
Moderate exercise also seems to have anti-inflammatory effects, regulating the immune system and excessive inflammation. This is important, given the new insight neuroscience is gaining into the potential role of inflammation in anxiety and depression.
Finally, there is evidence for the positive effects of exercise on the neurotransmitters – brain chemicals that send signals between neurons – dopamine and endorphins. Both of these are involved in positive mood and motivation.
Exercise improves clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression
Researchers also have examined the effects of exercise on measurable brain function and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Exercise improves memory function, cognitive performance and academic achievement.
Studies also suggest regular exercise has a moderate effect on depressive symptoms even comparable to psychotherapy. For anxiety disorders, this effect is mild to moderate in reducing anxiety symptoms.
Exercise could even potentially desensitize people to physical symptoms of anxiety. That is because of the similarity between bodily effects of exercise, specifically high-intensity exercise, and those of anxiety, including shortness of breath, heart palpitation and chest tightness.
Also, by reducing baseline heart rate, exercise might lead to signaling of a calmer internal physical environment to the brain.