Exercise and the Stressed Brain

I’ve been recommending exercise to stressed out clients (and depressed clients, for that matter) for years. Those in the know suggest that you get aerobic exercise — i.e., exercise that raises your heart rate enough that it is a little difficult to talk, like running or dancing — for half an hour, three times a week at a minimum. If you can’t get a full half-hour in at a time, or you only have two days to exercise, do what you can. My clients have reported that even ten minutes of working out can help them feel more relaxed and happier. (Of course, if your doctor doesn’t think you should exercise, listen to your doctor.)

Therapists, doctors and scientists have known for a long time that exercise helps with stress. Now scientists have run experiments which show exercise actually changes the brain so it handles stressful situations better, at least in rats. A New York Times blog post from last month reviews three recent studies showing how the brains of rats who exercised handled stress better than those of couch potato rats — expressing fewer specific genes, showing less serotonin levels, and dampening the effects of oxidative stress in response to stress.

So the proof is in: exercise really does make a difference. Don’t skip it this season because you have too much shopping to do, or the in-laws are coming to visit, or you have a five-hour drive to Christmas dinner. Those are the very stressful situations that exercise will help you handle calmly.

Oh, and start exercising right away if you haven’t worked out since the late ’90s. It took the rats between three and six weeks of exercising to see big changes in their brains. The scientists don’t know how long it takes to make a difference in humans. They haven’t done that research yet. But it’s a fair bet that the sooner you start exercising, the sooner you’ll feel more relaxed.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at nancy@unblockresults.com to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about how we might work together on what’s blocking you.

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