September 11, 2013

Exercise Reorganizes the Brain

The research on exercise does not at first glance make sense. Because of the way exercise affects the brain, it should cause anxiety, not reduce it. Yet, we all know that regular exercise reduces anxiety and stress response. This is also why Cliffside Malibu Drug Treatment Center incorporates exercise into it’s treatment program.

Researchers have thought that exercise reduces anxiety by promoting growth of new neurons in the ventral hippocampus, the brain region that regulates anxiety. But young neurons are typically more excitable than mature neurons. So exercise should result in more anxiety and stress response, not less. But as any exercise enthusiast will tell you, they feel better and calmer when they engage in regular exercise. Why is this so?

Timothy Schoenfeld, from Princeton University, and colleagues have done research that reveals that exercise strengthens the mechanisms that prevent brain cells from firing. They used mice to prove their point.

One group of mice that were allowed to exercise regularly. Then they experienced stress (exposure to cold water). The brain exhibited a spike in the activity of neurons that shut off excitement in the ventral hippocampus, the part of the brain where anxiety or stress response occurs. Running or other exercise, prevents activation of new neurons in response to stress. In other words, those who exercise regularly do not get the same level of stress response in the brain as people who do not exercise regularly.

The other group of mice were not allowed to exercise. They were the couch potatoes of the study.  In these sedentary mice, stress activated the new neurons in the hippocampus and BINGO! Anxiety! The good news is that after allowing the sedentary mice to exercise for six weeks, the stress-induced activation of both new and mature neurons disappeared. That means that they too were able to receive the stress-reducing benefits of exercise, even after a period of couch-potato existence. There is hope for those of us who have been avoiding exercise! A few weeks of effort and we can feel more calm in the face of stress.

Researchers were also able to pinpoint brain cells and regions of the brain that are important to anxiety regulation that may help them understand and treat human anxiety. In terms of addiction recovery, there could be huge implications for those undergoing the recovery process. Getting and staying sober is enough to create anxiety in anyone. Regular exercise as part of the recovery process in a Malibu rehab center may actually help stave off anxiety and other stress responses, enabling a person with substance use disorder to remain sober in trying times.

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