Just Take a Pill to Stave Off Depression and Anxiety

Just Take a Pill to Stave Off Depression and Anxiety

By Jim Windell

           If only it were that simple. Just take one pill a day and your brain would be healthy and you would be warding off depression and anxiety.

           Arash Javanbakht, M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Wayne State University, writing recently in The Conversation, an online opinion forum, says that he refers to exercise as the “exercise pill.”

           As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist researching the neurobiology of anxiety and how interventions change the brain, he began to think of prescribing exercise as telling his patients to take their “exercise pills.” Not that he necessarily took his own advice.

           At least not until a few years ago. “As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me,” he writes in The Conversation. “That was because I myself was not very active.” But over the years he picked up boxing and became more active. That’s when he says he got firsthand experience of the positive impacts on his mind. “I also started researching the effects of dance and movement therapies on trauma and anxiety in refugee children, and I learned a lot more about the neurobiology of exercise,” he writes.

           He points out that while we have all heard about how exercise improves musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, metabolic and other aspects of health. But he’s not so sure most of know how this happens within the brain. In his article he says that working out regularly really does change the brain biology.  “Regular exercise, especially cardio, does change the brain,” Javanbakht says. “Contrary to what some may think, the brain is a very plastic organ. Not only are new neuronal connections formed every day, but also new cells are generated in important areas of the brain.” One of those key areas of the brain is the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory and regulating negative emotions.

           Javanbakht, the director of the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic at Wayne State University, explains that a molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps the brain produce neurons, or brain cells. A variety of aerobic and high-intensity interval training exercises significantly increases BDNF levels. “There is evidence from animal research that these changes are at epigenetic levels, which means these behaviors affect how genes are expressed, leading to changes in the neuronal connections and function,” he says.

           Javanbakht indicates that moderate exercise also seems to have anti-inflammatory effects, which helps regulate the immune system and prevents excessive inflammation. This, he says, is important, because there is evidence that inflammation plays a role in anxiety and depression. Finally, there is also evidence for the positive effects of exercise on the neurotransmitters, especially dopamine and endorphins. Both of these neurotransmitters are involved in helping us maintain a positive mood and increasing our motivation.

           Pointing to his own research Dr. Javanbakht found among refugee children that there was a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and PTSD among children who attended eight to 12 weeks of dance and movement therapies.

           So since you can’t just pop a pill to get the benefits of exercise, how can you find time to exercise, especially with all the additional time demands of the pandemic, and the limitations imposed by the pandemic such as limited access to the gyms?

           Javanbakht suggests first that you find something you can love. “Not all of us have to run on a treadmill (I actually hate it),” he writes. “What works for one person might not work for another. Try a diverse group of activities and see which one you will like more: running, walking, dancing, biking, kayaking, boxing, weights, swimming. You can even rotate between some or make seasonal changes to avoid boredom. It does not even have to be called an exercise. Whatever ups your heartbeat, even dancing with the TV ads or playing with the kids.”

           He also recommends using positive peer pressure to your advantage. That means working out with friends at a regular time – even joining an online workout with one or more friends.

           He says that a workout doesn’t have to be an all or none proposition. You don’t have to spend an hour in the gym or hike for three hours. Do as much as possible. “Three minutes of dancing with your favorite music still counts,” he says. But you can merge it with other activities. For instance, 15 minutes of walking while on the phone with a friend, even around the house, is still being active.

           Finally, Javanbakht says that even if you do not feel anxious or depressed, you should still take the exercise pill. Exercise for protecting your brain – if for no other reason.

           To read the article in The Conversation, go to: https://theconversation.com/the-exercise-pill-how-exercise-keeps-your-brain-healthy-and-protects-it-against-depression-and-anxiety-155848

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