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Keep Calm and Carry On Exercising, It Relieves Stress

Keep Calm and Carry On Exercising, It Relieves Stress

Add a few exercise sessions to your schedule; your personal and work life could benefit.


Another work deadline is fast approaching and, yet again, you’re starting to feel the pressure. Need a permanent stress fix? Hit the gym and make it a regular habit. A new study conducted by a research team at Princeton University gives valuable insight into the contradictory links between physical exercise and changes to brain regions involved in anxiety.

Stress and exercising
It is widely known that long-term physical exercise reduces anxiety, but what are the underlying mechanisms? One of the main brain regions involved in regulating anxiety is the ventral hippocampus. Activation of this region results in increased levels of anxiety and stress. Numerous studies have shown that when rodents runtheir anxiety levels decrease but the production of new excitatory neurons increases in the hippocampus. How can increased stimulation of an anxiogenic brain region result in decreased anxiety-like behaviour? Exploring this apparent discrepancy, a research team based at Princeton University has shown that exercise does not lead to activation of the new neurons but, in fact, decreases activation of both new and mature neurons.

The study comprised of one group of adult male mice with unlimited access to a running wheel and another group of mice who were caged without one for a period of 6 weeks. To activate the ventral hippocampus, all mice were then subjected to a stressor such as cold water for a short time. Analysis of their brains revealed that although exercise induced increased production of excitatory neurons in the brains of runners, activation of inhibitory neurons was increased as well as the production of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This inhibitory effect dampens excitation of the hippocampus which explains the decreased anxietylike behaviour observed in the runners when compared to the sedentary mice.The researchers also administered a drug that inhibits GABA activity by blocking their receptors in the hippocampus and found that this abolished the anxiety-reducing effects of exercise.

So what could be the basic reason for exercise-induced reorganisation of this brain region? It may be more beneficial for less physically fit individuals to experience anxiety when exposed to a stressor. This promotes avoidance behaviour which could increase their chances of survival if, unlike physically fit individuals, they are unable to run away from the threat.

It is clear that our brain is not a fixed structure. By just adding a few exercise sessions to your weekly schedule, both your personal and work life could benefit. Keep fit and keep calm. Go on, kill two birds with one stone.

Schoenfeld TJ, Rada P, Pieruzzini PR, Hsueh B, & Gould E (2013). Physical exercise prevents stress-induced activation of granule neurons and enhances local inhibitory mechanisms in the dentate gyrus. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33 (18), 7770-7 PMID: 23637169

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