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There are lots of good reasons to exercise,
like toning those biceps,
the satisfaction of breaking a sweat,
or just actually using that gym membership
you got when you made that resolution.
And exercising is good for your general healthand wellness.
It can also make you happier.
That ’ s because working out doesn ’
t just affect your body-fat percentage — it can
also change the way you feel
by boosting happy brain chemicals and buffering your response
And the effects can be so dramatic
that many psychologists think regular exercise can help
treat disorders like anxiety and depression.
Lots of research studies
over the past decades have drawn a clear link between exercise and
And the mood-boosting effects of a single bout
of exercise can stick around for up to
24 hours, according to some studies.
Part of why you feel so good after exercise,
counterintuitive as it might seem, is because
exercise is stressful.
Technically speaking, exercise is a physical stress on the body,
which means it activates
the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPAaxis–
the part of your nervous system that
controls your body’s stress response.
One of the things it does is signal production of the stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol helps produce the physical changes you associate
with stress or exercise, like
elevated heart rate.
But it also contributes to a negative feedback
loop that eventually shuts down the HPA axis.
Levels of cortisol in your blood rise initially when you ’ re stressed,
but once they reach a certain level,
they signal the HPA axisto relax.
And it takes your body some time to reset everything
before cortisol levels can rise again after that happens.
That means exercise can act as a buffer to other stresses
that come shortly after, even
if they’re psychological rather than physical.
For example, a 2015 study
in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology
had 40 young men do what ’ s called the Montreal
Imaging Stress Task. Basically,
you do math problems
while a ticker shows your expected performance on a big screen,
which is not exactly relaxing.
The researchers found that when subjects ran on a treadmill
for half an hour beforehand,
they had lower cortisol levels during thetest.
But the happy feelings associated
with exercise don ’ t just come from handling other stresses better.
Working out increases your levels of endocannabinoids,
the neurotransmitters linked to the so-called
They decrease anxiety by binding to cannabinoid receptors
in the brain—yes, cannabinoid
because they ’ re same receptors the psychoactive compounds in marijuana interact with.
Endocannabinoids also help rein in an overactive HPA axis,
so that ’ s another way exercise
can make you more resilient to other typesof stress.
Working out also ups your levels of serotonin,
a neurotransmitter involved in the regulation
of mood and emotion.
The harder you work, the more serotonin youproduce.
That ’ s especially interesting,
because low serotonin is linked to disorders like depression
In fact, many antidepressant medications work
by directly or indirectly increasing levels
of serotonin in your brain.
And another chemical, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor,
or BDNF, also goes up during exercise.
BDNF is like fertilizer for your brain.
It helps neurons grow and form connections
with other neurons, and generally improves brain health.
Researches haven ’ t yet figured the exact link between BDNF and mood,
but it might help
by enhancing your neuroplasticity,
the flexibility that allows your brain to reorganize when
you learn or experience something.
In depression, neuroplasticity is disrupted,
which makes it difficult for the brain to
compensate if important neural circuits becomeimpaired.
So elevating BDNF might help reverse or preventthat. And,
maybe unsurprisingly, antidepressantsalso tend to increase BDNF levels.
All that said,
the similarities between exercise and antidepressants
don ’ t mean they ’ re the same.
The studies that look at the effects of exercise
on a molecular level are usually only measuring
things in the short-term —
right after you hop off the treadmill.
Which doesn’t tell you much about how longthe boost lasts.
But the research is increasingly showing the long-term benefits of regular exercise, too.
One study, published in 2017,
examined the mental health and exercise habits of almost
34,000 Norwegians for more than a decade.
And the researchers found
that people who didn ’ t exercise had a 44 % greater chance
of developing depression compared to those who exercised 1-2 hours a week.
Other research has found that —
at least for mild to moderate depression — exercise
can be just as beneficial as other treatmentoptions.
For example, a 2011 study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine
of over 200 adults diagnosed with
depression found that exercise was just as effective
as an antidepressant over a four
month period. Now,
before you go out and swap your Paxil
for pilates, it ’ s worth noting that there
were some biases in this study.
For one thing,
the subjects were people who responded to an ad about research on treating
depression with exercise,
so a lot of them were very pro-exercise in the first place.
The researchers also noticed that some people seemed anti-medication as a treatment.
All of which would have affected the results.
But no matter how exercise compares to other treatment options,
research has made it pretty
clear that working out has all kinds of benefits
for both your mind and body.
So if you think you might be depressed,
definitely see a doctor.
But if you ’ re stressed about a project,
or just feeling down in the dumps, getting
a little bit of exercise might help.
Thanks for watching this episode of SciShowPsych!
If you want to learn more about that buzz you get
from working out, you can learn more
about that in our episode on why you get that runner ’ s high.
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