Saturday, February 5, 2011

Protect: Cardio exercise boosts protective brain protein, increases stress resilience

According to the American Psychological Association:

  • 75% of Americans feel stressed
  • 50% of us grab unhealthy food as a result
  • 47% of us have insomnia because of it
  • 33% of us say we're depressed due to our stress
  • 42% of us report feeling worse than last year

Not a pretty picture is it?

Kimberly Goad wrote a data-filled article in Fitness magazine's September 2010 issue worth a look-see (it appears in full online).

Stop Stress for Good: Exercise to Fight Stress reports that cardio workouts help your brain and body become more resilient to stress. Researchers are learning that, compared to the sedentary, "'brains on exercise' morphed over time into a biochemically calm state that remained steady even when the subjects were under stress."

Those who didn't make exercise a priority lacked this protective brain cell armor. Goad quotes Harvard's John Ratey, M.D., explaining it this way: "Through regular cardio, you actually change your brain, so it takes more and more stress to trigger the fight-or-flight response."

How does it accomplish this feat?

That boost of blood your heart pumps to your brain when you're running or spinning or even walking carries oxygen, which feeds hungry neurons. But nourishing old brain cells isn't the only thing going on here.

BDNF 1BNDA revved-up workout session actually perks production of a special brain protein (brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF) that protects cells from stress.

A couple of videos below explore this a bit further:

Law professor Scott Rogers gives a lecture to students on the benefits of exercise on the brain (emphasizing how it helps to stimulate learning, not merely blunt stress).

This second video goes into the BDNF's promising role in understanding, and perhaps stemming, the effects of anxiety and stress disorders (like, PTSD, my former research focus).

Dr. Francis Lee of Weill-Cornell Medical College -- a leading BDNF investigator -- talks about the latest findings on this brain protein at the National Institute of Mental Health:

OK, now that you've fed your brain knowledge, step away from the computer and get cracking on making some more BDNF already!

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