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When we think of exercise, what comes to mind is usually its benefits to body organs such as the circulatory system. But, did you know that exercise is just what the doctor ordered when it comes to reducing anxiety? It’s true. Next time you’re upset and have the urge to eat, move your body instead. Here’s why.
Scientists have long known that exercise combats anxiety, but not exactly how that process works—until now. According to “How exercise calms the brain” (THE WEEK, 7/26/13), “physical activity creates excitable new neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that regulates emotion, thinking, and memory.” One would think that this process would make people more anxious, but it works just the opposite. Studying active and sedentary mice, Princeton researchers discovered that the brains of mice that ran on their wheels regularly contained more of a specific neuron that releases the neurotransmitter called gabapentin, or GABA for short, which keeps a lid on other young excitable neurons becoming overactive.
Care to guess what happens when both sedentary and wheel-running mice were exposed to stress? It turns out that that “their excitable neurons lit up as expected…but unlike the sedentary mice, the fit mice also released a large amount of GABA, which quickly quelled their anxiety.” The researchers therefore concluded that “routine exercise changes human brains similarly, helping us relax in the face of stress.”
I added the italics in the previous two sentences to emphasize that this brain change happens rapidly and that through ongoing exercise we actually change our brains from producing anxiety-generating chemicals to producing calming ones.
Activity doesn’t mean spending hours at the gym. For example, say you have a disagreement with someone and are left feeling unsettled. Sitting around, thoughts swarm around your head about what he or she said and whether you handled the situation appropriately. You can feel yourself getting anxious and know that this often triggers a food binge. Instead of remaining sedentary, take a short, brisk walk or do jumping jacks in place or leg lunges. Dance around to some high-energy music. If you can’t easily move around, sit in a chair and do the arm part of jumping jacks, enough to get your heart pumping. Too often, disregulated eaters don’t take advantage of and do the things that work to calm themselves down. Remember, everyone gets anxious at times, but you don’t have to remain anxious. You can easily shift your brain chemistry through a bout of brief activity to get your GABA going. Isn’t that better than eating?
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