Can moving the body heal the mind?

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Jennifer Heisz blends personal experience and the latest science about how exercise can improve your mental well-being. (Photo: Envato Elements)
When Jennifer Heisz was in graduate school, she borrowed a friend’s aged, rusty road bike — and wound up redirecting her career. At the time, she was studying cognitive neuroscience but, dissatisfied with the direction of her work and her personal life, began experiencing what she now recognizes as “pretty severe anxiety,” she told me recently. Her friend suggested biking as a reprieve. Not previously athletic, she took to the riding with enthusiasm, finding it “soothed my mind,” she said.اضافة اعلان

That discovery convinced her to change the focus of her research. Now the director of the NeuroFit Lab at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, she studies the interplay of physical and emotional health and how exercise helps stave off or treat depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health conditions.

“The effects of motion on the mind are just so pervasive and fascinating,” Heisz said.

That idea animates her new book, “Move the Body, Heal the Mind,” which details the latest science about exercise and mental health, as well as her own journey from inactivity and serial emotional slumps to triathlon training and increasing serenity.

Recently, I caught up with Heisz to talk about her book and what it can tell us about mental health, the benefits of gentle exercise, the strains of the pandemic years, and how to choose the right workout, right now, to raise your spirits. The edited conversation follows.

Can we talk about exercise and anxiety, which many of us are feeling these days?

Exercise is extremely beneficial for reducing anxiety. At the end of every workout, in fact, you typically get a brief reprieve from anxiety, due to neuropeptide Y, which increases with exercise. It is a resiliency factor. It helps soothe the anxious amygdala, which is the part of the brain that recognizes danger and puts us on high alert. For the last few years, with the pandemic, our amygdala has been on hyper-alert, setting off an almost constant stress response. This chronic stress starts to make our minds really fearful and people wind up with constant anxiety. Exercise, by up-regulating neuropeptide Y, helps soothe the anxious amygdala, dial down the fear and hyper-vigilance and keep us calmer.

Any particular type of exercise?

The really nice thing is that light to moderate exercise, like walking, is enough. Research from my lab shows this kind of exercise reduces anxiety immediately after your workout and then, over time, if you keep exercising, reduces anxiety even more and for longer. It looks like about 30 minutes of this kind of exercise three times a week is good. Walking, cycling, swimming, dancing — a wide variety of activities work.

What about more intense workouts?

You need to be careful with really intense exercise and anxiety. If you are feeling anxiety, you are already under stress. High-intensity exercise is also a kind of stress. But our bodies only have, in general, one stress response. So, during intense exercise, you add extreme physical stress onto the stress your body already is feeling and it might all become too much. Right before the pandemic, I was training for a triathlon and doing a lot of high-intensity workouts. But once the pandemic started, I was feeling so much emotional stress, I couldn’t finish those workouts. So, I backed off. What I would tell people is that, when you’re already feeling stressed-out, prolonged, intense exercise may not be the right option. … Aim for exercise that feels comfortably challenging, so your heart rate is elevated but not racing.

Does exercise help in the same ways against depression?

Classically, depression has been blamed on a lack of serotonin in the brain, which antidepressants treat. But for some people with depression the drugs don’t work well, probably because serotonin is not their problem. Many of us who study depression now think their problem may involve inflammation, which is linked to stress. The inflammation starts to damage cells in the body, inducing an immune response and increasing inflammation, which can then get into the brain, affecting mood. For those people, exercise may be the medicine they need, because it helps fight the inflammation.

In studies, when individuals who have not responded to antidepressants start exercising, they usually see significant reductions in their symptoms. … One study that looked at frequency, or how much exercise you need to combat depression, compared 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week, which is the standard exercise recommendation for physical health, with a quarter of that. Both groups benefited the same. So, it looks like the exercise prescription for mental health is less than that for physical health, which is kind of nice.

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