Exercise is good for more than your muscles

A row of exercise equipment at the Welland campus Athletics Centre. PHOTO BY ANGEL-LEIGHIA CHAPMAN-KLAASSEN
A row of exercise equipment at the Welland campus Athletics Centre. PHOTO BY ANGEL-LEIGHIA CHAPMAN-KLAASSEN

Staff Writer

You don’t need to be a fitness guru or a gym rat to be rewarded from exercise.

Even a modest amount of exercise is needed to help depression, relief stress and even help restore memory, among other things, research shows.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, doctors have been prescribing physical exercise as a treatment for depression and anxiety, as well as other mental issues. Of course, it’s not a cure, but it goes a long way. Alcohol and drug abuse, along with overeating, are less likely to occur in those who exercise regularly or even modestly.

Researchers at Duke University found people who exercise are generally mentally healthier than those who do not. This includes depression, where a high number of people who suffer from depression were found to lack exercise, or, interestingly enough, had regular, vigorous training and fitness exercises that they no longer could do.

Exercise is effectively a medication for depression, working on the same level as antidepressants. Exercise allows for neural growth and reduced inflammation, making the brain feel calm. This would explain why people who go for a jog after a stressful day tend to feel happier afterward.

It also serves as a distraction, albeit a healthier one than, say, TV or video games. People exercising should focus more on their exercises or their bodies, such as focusing on the rhythm of a heart beat or the feeling of hands pushing though water, rather than thoughts that would occupy their brain when they are not working out, thus essentially giving depression a time out.

Exercise causes the release of endorphins, a group of hormones produced within the nervous system that act like morphine and other opiates. Exercise releases the endorphins into the bloodstream, which causes the effect known as “runner’s high.”

Not only does exercise help combat depression but it helps with anxiety as well. Regular exercise can help people who suffer from anxiety deal better with or even eliminate panic attacks. Working out and panic attacks produce the same reactions from the body, including elevated heart rates and heavy sweating. The common physical reactions send signals to the brain during panic attack situations effectively calming the person.

These results were discovered by Japer Smits, PhD, co-director of the Anxiety Research Program at Southern Methodist University at Dallas and Michal Otto, PhD, professor of psychology at Boston University. The two studied 60 volunteers with anxiety during a two-week exercise program. The volunteers showed better reactions to anxiety situations than the control group.

“People learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger,” said Smits.

The Canadian Mental Health Association has also said that even five minutes of aerobic activity (cardio-based exercises that require higher levels of oxygen: swimming, rowing, treadmills) can induce anti-anxiety effects.

Everyone has the potential to become stressed, whether it’s from work, school or just the daily grind of living. Stress can manifest into physical pain – causing muscles to tense, headaches or muscle cramps. It also effects people mentally. Insomnia is a common result or even the physical pain noted above, can actually manifest itself psychosomatically (meaning it’s all in the head).

The endorphins released into the bloodstream help ease stress, relaxing the muscles, which in turn ease the brain.
The brain feels good when the body does.