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Curb Anxiety and Depression with Activity

If you turn to food when you’re anxious or depressed and are looking for a remedy with no side-effects, try staying active. Exercise actually changes your neurochemistry and helps lessen the blues, the blahs and the agita you may be feeling. Here’s how it works.

“How exercise combats depression and anxiety” by Amanda Loudin (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, E18, 5/25/16) explains the power of activity in reducing these discomfiting emotional states. “Researchers at the University of California at Davis Medical Center found that exercise increased the level of the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA, both of which are depleted in the brains of patients with depression and anxiety. The study shows that “exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters.” Pretty simple and straightforward.

If you tend toward emotional dysregulation as well as yo-yo eating, exercise can help. Richard Maddock, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the study’s lead author, says, “This is about the brain working better, including those parts of the brain that regulate emotions. Those patients whose glutamate and GABA are at low levels are at a disadvantage for controlling their emotions.” Doctors are so impressed with studies linking a reduction in depression with exercise, that they’ve begun incorporating it into their treatment plans.

If lowered glutamate and GABA mean a disadvantage at controlling your emotions, you know what that may mean for your eating. Having depressive and anxiety disorders puts you at higher risk for emotional eating. Treat the underlying cause of these conditions—neurotransmitter insufficiencies—and you might have an easier time being a “normal” eater. If you envy emotionally well-balanced people, consider that they might not be that way without exercising. You may assume that they’re among the genetically fortunate, but maybe they’re using activity to keep their mood disorders in check.

See for yourself. Next time you’re depressed or anxious, move your body. Put on a dance video, take a walk, vacuum, rake leaves, shovel snow, shoot hoops, go for a run, or do jumping jacks. Notice if there’s an improvement in your mood. Try another experiment. Engage in more activity for two weeks, then don’t for two weeks. Observe your mood and emotions under both conditions. All else being equal, are you as anxious or depressed when you’re active as when you’re not? Try the experiment for a month and do another assessment. Activity may be the key to managing your emotions.

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