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How Moving Your Body Can Help Your Mind

Groundbreaking research shows that exercise can combat anxiety, dementia and depression.

It’s no secret that exercise is one of the best ways to keep your body strong and resilient, especially as you age. But did you know that exercise helps your mind stay strong and resilient, too? That’s the focus of Dr. Jennifer Heisz’s research, which she shares in her latest book, Move the Body, Heal the Mind—and with me in a recent episode of Eat Move Think.

The director of the NeuroFit Lab at McMaster University found that regular exercise can be as effective or better than prescribed medication in treating drug-resistant depression, and that certain forms and durations of exercise can help treat anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), prevent dementia and cognitive decline, and make us more creative and focused.

The biggest problem with using exercise to treat the mind, however? Getting started. “The brain sees [exercise] as an extravagant expense, and so it goes out of its way to talk you out of it,” she says. To help motivate you to get moving, Dr. Heisz, who experienced the first-hand benefits of exercise in soothing her own anxiety when she was in her 20s, shares several science-backed findings about the connection between movement and the mind.

One Workout Can Make a Difference

A single half-hour light-to-moderate workout triggers a neurochemical called neuropeptide-Y (NPY), which helps to calm the amygdala, or the fear centre of the brain. Research has shown that the higher the NPY count in veterans returning from war, the less likely they were to develop PTSD. When it comes to soothing anxiety, “even just a single bout of movement helps to reduce anxiety immediately afterwards, and the benefits extend the longer that you engage,” says Dr. Heisz.

If you’re engaging in aerobic exercise, duration matters more than intensity. “For every additional 10 minutes that you do, you get a significant improvement in your depressive symptoms,” says Dr. Heisz. In other words, “the longer you can do your brisk walk, the better.” When it comes to resistance training—like weight training, yoga or tai chi—intensity matters the most. “Even a 10% increase in workload can result in a significant improvement in your depression as well,” she adds.

Boosting Your Heart Rate May Build Resilience to Stress

Increased heart rate, perspiration and shortness of breath are signs of an anxiety or panic attack. They’re also signs you’re exercising hard. Adding in short intermittent sprints during your daily walk (for just a few seconds at a time) that expose your body to these symptoms may help your brain become more accustomed to coping when feelings of panic or anxiety arise. Dr. Heisz cautions against prolonged high-intensity workouts, however. “If you’re already really stressed out psychologically from life . . . layering stress upon stress can get you to your max tolerance quicker. So it could cause more harm than good.” Instead, she recommends sticking to moderate intensity workouts. “High intensity is really good for treating depression,” she says, as well as for boosting memory and neuroplasticity in the brain. These bursts also promote your body’s production of lactic acid, which helps to grow more brain cells in the hippocampus—the area of the brain that is affected by Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Break Up Long Bouts of Sitting to Help Your Brain

Sedentary behaviour—including long bouts of desk-sitting—is a main risk factor for dementia because it starves the brain of oxygenated blood. Taking a two-minute movement break every 30 minutes will improve focus, sharpen your mind, and lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Variety Helps Overall Brain Health

Different activities affect different areas of the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Running on a treadmill or performing a choreographed dance helps with focus as it challenges the brain to remember rehearsed movements in order to execute them perfectly. Cross training, tennis or football aids in creativity as you learn to think on your feet and react to those around you. “When we train the body to be more flexible, we train the brain to think more flexibly,” says Dr. Heisz.

The More Often You Move, the Lower Your Risk of Depression

Your body becomes slightly inflamed during workout as it reacts to the activity. So every time you exercise, an “anti-inflammatory cleanup crew comes in immediately to clean up all the inflammation from exercise, and then some,” says Dr. Heisz. Eventually, this helps to reduce the inflammation in the brain, which is the cause of depression in one in three individuals who don’t respond to antidepressants. The more you move your body, the more inflammation is cleared from your brain, bringing you back down to baseline. Research has shown that for some people exercise can provide the same level of relief as prescribed antidepressants.

Make Exercise an Event

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, getting started can be the toughest part. Some tips from Dr. Heisz include scheduling workouts into your calendar or with others, which helps make it more likely you’ll follow through with them. And adding motivational music while working out has been shown to help exercisers push through fatigue. Working out with others also reduces stress, and improves one’s overall quality of life—so try alternating solo workouts with group activities.

Ultimately, the key to getting the benefits of exercise is to find a few types of exercise you enjoy—and then aim to do each at least once a week. “I have such a personal insight into how difficult it is to exercise and also how difficult it can be to live and learn to manage your mental health, but how powerful the effects of exercise can be,” says Dr. Heisz. “I think the messaging is that it is hard, but it’s hopeful. And hopefully, [this research] inspires people to move a little more.”

Seeking support to incorporate fitness into your life, or looking to talk to someone about your mental well-being? Arrange a consultation with our Fitness or Mental Well-being teams.

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