Reducing Anxiety through Exercise

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Physical exercise has more than just physical benefits. For instance, as we wrote a while back, when kids exercise more, they also tend to achieve more academically. In Spark, John Ratey provides ample support for this as well as the many other benefits of exercise for children and adults. For example, exercise also has a positive effect on mood, emotions and psychological well-being – so much so that exercise is now prescribed for conditions such as depression. (And some say it should be prescribed even more.)

For a long time, when people talked about the psychological effects of exercise, they usually focused on endorphins – opiate-like compounds released by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus during exercise or when we’re excited or in pain. More recently, research has looked at the possibility that changes in dopamine or serotonin levels during exercise might be involved.

The truth of the matter is that we don’t yet completely know why exercise makes us feel good mentally as well as physically, but some intriguing research out of Princeton may bring us one step closer to understanding this important phenomenon.

According to a report on the study published late last year in the New York Times, there appears to be a difference in neuron response between active and sedentary rats.

Scientists have known for some time that exercise stimulates the creation of new brain cells (neurons) but not how, precisely, these neurons might be functionally different from other brain cells.

In the experiment, preliminary results of which were presented [in October 2009] at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, scientists allowed one group of rats to run. Another set of rodents was not allowed to exercise. Then all of the rats swam in cold water, which they don’t like to do. Afterward, the scientists examined the animals’ brains. They found that the stress of the swimming activated neurons in all of the brains. (The researchers could tell which neurons were activated because the cells expressed specific genes in response to the stress.) But the youngest brain cells in the running rats, the cells that the scientists assumed were created by running, were less likely to express the genes. They generally remained quiet. The “cells born from running,” the researchers concluded, appeared to have been “specifically buffered from exposure to a stressful experience.” The rats had created, through running, a brain that seemed biochemically, molecularly, calm.

In short, exercise was shown to reduce anxiety.

Notably, the changes don’t happen overnight but, as other research cited in the article has shown, emerge over a period of weeks. Nor is it entirely clear yet how these findings translate to human activity – although one of the reasons rats are so commonly used in studies such as this is that their metabolisms and other bodily functions are so similar to those of humans.

However, we do see – both in research on physical education and in our own work with students – much lower anxiety levels after some weeks of regular physical movement relative to anxiety at the beginning of the course. In fact, a good number of kids whose parents enroll them in Yoga Calm courses are there precisely because of anxiety and related mood disorders, the parents looking for ways of helping their children cope.

Similar results are reported by teachers, nurses, counselors and other school workers who have brought Yoga Calm to the classroom. The blend of breath work, physical activity and social-emotional games not only helps ease anxiety but also gives children tools for coping with anxiety and big emotions when they do arise – and they will, invariably. They are a part of life, after all. But by giving children – and ourselves – the means to handle them when they arise, we allow them – and ourselves – a way to thrive in spite of such difficult feelings.

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