“The positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms,” argue Michael Hopkins, FC Davis, Michelle VanTieghem, Paul Whalen and David Bucci of Dartmouth.
They compared effects of a single exercise session or repeated sessions on non-exercising volunteers who were genotyped to determine brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a nerve growth factor important in long-term memory.
Participants were measured on novel object recognition (NOR) memory and mental health dimensions before and after engaging in a 4-week exercise program or a single exercise session.
More frequent exercisers performed better on object recognition memory and said they experienced less stress, but only when their 4 week program included a final test.
In contrast, a single exercise session did not affect recognition memory and resulted in increased perceived stress levels.
This study found no relationship between exercise-induced cognitive benefits and changes in mood and anxiety, suggesting that perceived stress is controlled by a different neural system.
In contrast, Princeton’s Timothy Schoenfeld, Pedro Rada, Pedro Pieruzzini, Brian Hsueh, and Elizabeth Gould, reported different results with mice.
They investigated the paradox of exercise: It promotes new, excitable brain cells that can aid learning and memory, yet exercise can induce calm in various brain areas.
Schoenfeld and team controlled for pre-existing nervousness in adult mice and allowed half to exercise and half to remain sedentary over a six week period.
Exercisers were more willing to cautiously explore and spend time in open areas, suggesting they were more confident and less anxious than their sedentary counterparts.
The runners’ brains developed new, excitable neurons in the hippocampus’ ventral region, associated with processing emotions and releasing GABA, which inhibits brain activity such as the subjective experience of anxiety.
All animals encountered the physical stress of cold water for five minutes, and showed many immediate early genes indicating neuron firing.
However, the runner rats calmed more rapidly due to their release of GABA after this physical stress.
Though this study was conducted with animals, the findings suggest that physical exercise builds capacity to recover more rapidly from stress by regulating anxiety through ventral hippocampus inhibition.
Like other stress management recommendations, regular exercise is difficult for many to adopt as an habit.
For reluctant exercisers, Brett Klika and Chris Jordan of Human Performance Institute offer a rapid but challenging solution: “Seven Minutes of Steady Discomfort.”
Their Scientific 7-Minute Workout includes 12 exercises using a chair, wall and body weight, for interval training alternating large muscles in the upper and lower body.
Each exercise is performed for 30 seconds, at a discomfort rating of 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 10 second rest between.
Though quick, this routine may not be easy, and further willpower may be needed to adopt this approach.
McMaster University’s Kirsten Burgomaster, Krista Howarth, Stuart Phillips, Maureen MacDonald, SL McGee , Martin Gibala with Mark Rakobowchuk now of Brunel University validated Klika and Jordan’s proposed Seven Minutes of Discomfort.
They noted that even a few minutes of training at an intensity approaching maximum capacity produces molecular changes within muscles comparable to those of several hours of endurance training like running or bike riding.
Motivational help may be available by activating nucleus accumbens dopamine, which can regulate motivation and lead to goal initiation and persistence, according to University of Connecticut’s John Salamone and Mercè Correa of Universitat Jaume I of Castellón.
They refined the common assumption that dopamine is associated with reward systems and noted that nucleus accumbens dopamine, involved in appetitive and aversive motivational processes, may provide a biochemical approach to managing motivation and task persistence.
Though it may be difficult to muster the motivation to exercise regularly, these research findings suggest that regular exercise can lead to increased coping and cognitive abilities.
-*To what extent should workplaces promote exercise to reduce stress and increase cognitive performance?
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