Exercise: Repair the Effects of Stress

Exercise can be a 4 letter word for some people. Sometimes I just can’t get moving.

A sure way to unplug that brain-cork of mine… is to TURN ON THE MUSIC!  I love to dance, rock, belly dancing, swing, you name it.  A tune with a good beat gets me out of a chair in seconds.

In the Middle East children are encouraged to get up and belly dance to entertain the family.  Hand clapping accompanied my Uncle Yusef playing his Oud and singing, or the radio.
Belly dancing is fun, it touches every muscle group, and is a real workout. It is sensual, so it will elevate your mood too.  (You can look up a few how-to’s on YouTube to kick things off.)

If you get into it, you might even put together a belly dance outfit!  I purchased a purple coin embellished scarf to tie around my waist.

In an earlier post I discussed the importance of getting outdoors and allowing Nature to help take care of your stress.  Walking is another way to get your exercise.  A moderately paced walk for 30 minutes a day will do the trick. You can go alone, or invite a neighbor or friend.

I’m not big on joining classes, I seem to drop out after a few sessions. I would rather have a walking buddy to chat with.  But whatever motivates you to get that body shakin’ is great.

Below are excerpts from an article on this topic.

Exercise: Improve Your Mood and Repair the Effects of Stress – By Karyn Hall, PhD

Emotionally sensitive people are often advised to exercise to calm their anxiety or to help overcome depression. Grandmothers, psychiatrists, friends and even strangers often suggest, “Exercise. You’ll feel better.”

In our recent survey, 71.4% of the emotionally sensitive have found exercise helpful in managing their mood. Turns out the research, as reported by John Ratey, MD in his book Spark, shows exercise has a strong effect on mood as well as other important functions of the brain.

Exercise is effective in treating anxiety and panic.  Getting active provides a distraction, reduces muscle tension, builds brain resources (increases and balances serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all important neurotransmitters involved in mood), improves resilience by showing you that you can be effective in controlling anxiety, and breaks the feeling of being trapped and immobilized.

The effects can be equal or even better than medication. The problem is that when people are upset or depressed, they don’t want to exercise.

Establishing a regular exercise program, one that you could maintain when your mood was unpleasant, may be part of the answer. Continuing a routine when you are emotionally dysregulated is easier than starting a new activity.  Regular exercise would also help prevent relapse.

Exercise improves the ability to learn. When you are working on learning new coping skills, new ways of responding, the ability to take in information is obviously important. Dr. Ratey describes an American high school whose students participated in a physical fitness program. They finished first in the world on science and sixth on an international test to compare science and math abilities.  As a whole, US students ranked 18th in science and 19th in math.

Studies have shown that better fitness means improved attention and improved ability to adjust their cognitive performance following a mistake.

How does that happen? Exercise reportedly spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus. Perhaps most importantly, exercise is believed to increase BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), the master molecule of the learning process. Low levels of BDNF are associated with depression.

Exercise increases cognitive flexibility. Ratey defines cognitive flexibility as being able to shift your thinking and to be creative. Cognitive flexibility would be to apply new strategies to solve problems and use information in creative ways rather than rote memorization of facts. Memorizing coping skills may will not be as helpful as being able to able the information in different situations.

Exercise helps relieve and repair the effects of stress on the body. When stressed, the body releases cortisol. Ratey notes that high levels of cortisol make it difficult for the prefrontal cortex to direct the hippocampus to compare memories, like to determine that a stick is not a snake. Thus when cortisol is high it’s difficult to decide what is a threat and what isn’t a threat, so just about everything seems scary. You can’t think clearly.

In addition, high levels of cortisol kill neurons in the hippocampus (where memories are stored), causing a communication breakdown. This result could partially explain why people get locked into negative thoughts–the hippocampus keeps recycling a negative memory.

Exercise helps prevent the damaging effects of stress and can reverse damage that has been done.  All with very few side effects.

Reference

Ratey, J.( 2008).  Spark. New York:  Little, Brown and Company.

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