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Exercise: It builds up the body and protects the brain

By Arash Javanbakht

Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University Published June 12, 2021

As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me—until a few years ago. That was because I was not very active. Over the years, picking up boxing and becoming more active, allowed firsthand experience of positive impacts on the mind. Researching the effects of dance and movement therapies on trauma and anxiety in refugee children, I learned a lot about the neurobiology of exercise.

Being a psychiatrist and neuroscientist researching the neurobiology of anxiety and how our interventions change the brain. I have begun to think of prescribing exercise as telling patients to take their “exercise pills.” Now knowing the importance of exercising, almost all of my patients commit to some level of exercise, with benefits to several areas of their life and livelihood.

It is well documented that exercise improves musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, metabolic, and other aspects of health. What you may not know is how this happens within the brain.

Brain biology and growth

Working out regularly really does change the brain biology, and it is not just “go walk and you will just feel better.” Regular exercise, especially cardio, does change the brain. Contrary to what some may think, the brain is a very plastic organ. Not only are new neuronal connections formed every day, but also new cells are generated in important areas of the brain. One key area is the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory and regulating negative emotions.

A molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor helps the brain produce neurons, or brain cells. A variety of aerobic and high-intensity interval training exercises significantly increase BDNF levels. There is evidence from animal research that these changes are at epigenetic level, which means these behaviors affect how genes are expressed, leading to changes in the neuronal connections and function.

Moderate exercise also seems to have anti-inflammatory effects, regulating the immune system and excessive inflammation. This is important, given the new insight neuroscience is gaining into the potential role of inflammation in anxiety and depression.

Finally, there is evidence for the positive effects of exercise on the neurotransmitters—brain chemicals that send signals between neurons—dopamine and endorphins. Both of these are involved in positive mood and motivation.

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