Wash your brain by working your body

The following article appeared in the inaugural Spring 2015 issue of Florida Innovative Health Magazine.  It is accessible online and through Facebook. It is reprinted here with authorization of the magazine publisher.

Gil Peters

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Exercise is good for your health.

Duh!

Who doesn’t know that exercise strengthens every part of our bodies, from our heart to our bones and tendons, while aiding our breathing, digestion and so much more?

And who doesn’t know that we feel better about ourselves when we expend some sweat equity to tighten up our bellies, and that we feel guilty, embarrassed and even ashamed when we “let ourselves go”?

Fewer of us realize, however, that a 45-minute workout is a powerful antidepressant. And we’re not talking figuratively here.

An entire arm of the mental health field is devoted to looking at the chemical changes in the brain after exercise, from a 20-minute walk on up. Whether we’re lifting weights, doing yoga, riding a stationary bike, or running, our brain makeup morphs for the better.

And continuous motion exercise produces the most positive results.

Here’s what I know from personal experience. At age 69, I am far stronger physically, light years healthier emotionally, and on a different plane spiritually than I was a half-century ago when I was in what the medical profession called my “prime”. Not only am I twenty-five pounds lighter, but I actually feel that I fit in my skin.

At 19, I didn’t know who I was, a typical state for a young person. But worse, I didn’t like what I was becoming and, more to the point, I lusted after who I wasn’t. For that reason, I tried to escape from myself through a variety of unhealthy substances and behaviors. Sure, I got married, had a wonderful child and held a responsible job. Still, I was insecure and anxious – all the time. I had no sense of self.

I struggled through life for two more decades and then some, stuffing down my self-loathing with food, alcohol, a drug that is now legal in two states, and a number of unhealthy and inappropriate behaviors. None of them worked because none of them got me any closer to me.

In fact, I even began jogging at age 30, but it was to lose weight, not to gain sanity. My wife would tell me as I laced up my sneakers to plunge into the rain and snow, “You’re not going for a run, you’re running away.”

Slowly, after turning 40, I stopped running from and began running toward help from professionals and peer-support groups. I let go of the crutches I had used and started to learn about me. Once a scattered, frenetic human doing, I worked on becoming a human being. I slowed down my pace in all things, returned to school at age 50 to get a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling and then earned licenses as both an addictions counselor and clinical mental health specialist.

The best part of the journey, by far, was the master’s coursework that taught me about brain chemistry. I researched and wrote a number of papers on the connection between depression, exercise and the brain.

En route, I discovered why I got such a rush out of running, in particular. Turns out that the “runner’s high” was not a figment of my besotted imagination; it was a matter of science.  I had heard for years about “carbo loading” the night before a race and I had accepted the premise simply because it offered me another excuse to pound down pasta before a marathon.

But my research gave me a clear explanation: tryptophan. The maligned essential amino acid that still gets blamed for causing Uncle Fred to pass out in front of the football game after gorging on Thanksgiving turkey is, in reality, the fuel for the next day’s big run.

Tryptophan does not exist naturally in the body; it must be ingested through the complex carbohydrates we eat. What happens after 45 minutes of continuous exercise (remember hearing that number at the beginning of this ramble?) is that the body’s storehouse of tryptophan is depleted. To replace the needed tryptophan, the body “eats” the fat cells in the “love handles” and elsewhere. In the process, it hooks onto the albumin in the blood and rockets right through the blood-brain barrier, where it becomes a precursor (building block) in the manufacture of – fanfare, please — serotonin.

Once flooded with this feel-good neurotransmitter, the brain dispatches the fresh batch of serotonin to the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus, those areas of the brain that regulate our mood[1][2][3].

So, no wonder I feel so great after a long run: I have just shot up my brain with self-made joy juice. I may be tired and stinky but, man, I think I’m pretty cool.  Oh, and that self-loathing? No room for it in my ecstatic neurons.

Additionally, I’ve noticed one other change that occurs during the last part of my workout: I’m far more sensitive to my environment and other people, and more creative to boot. I find I can do a fair amount of problem solving while on a long run. The reason is that, with serotonin rolling around my brain pan, my thinking shifts  from linear and logical to creative and sentient. I’m not referencing any articles here. Rather, I can “hear” the gears shift in my head.

On the strength of this highly beneficial brainwashing, I advocate exercise to all my clients as an aid to their recovery. The clients who have embraced physical activity of some kind as part of their routine seem to do better than the ones who don’t. Also, those who exercise regularly are more likely to stay on an even keel — especially those in early recovery from substance and process addictions and those dealing with depression and anxiety.

And one more thing, my clients and I have discovered: During those quiet times of exercise, we experience a state of “moving meditation”. As we concentrate solely on putting one foot in front of the other, or moving into “Downward-Facing Dog” pose, a sense of serenity sets in. Although in motion, we sense a stillness and serenity that no substance or acting-out behavior ever could produce.

So drop down and give me 20. You may get much more than sore muscles from the effort.

Bibliography

  1. Exercise Increases Tryptophan Availability to the Brain in Older Men Age 57–70 Years, Melancon, Michel O., Lorrain, Dominique. Dionne, Isabelle J., Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, May 2012, Volume 44, Issue 5, pp. 881-887, journals.lww.com ,Home> May 2012, Volume 44, Issue 5.
  2. Increase Serotonin in the Human Brain without Drugs, Young, S. N., Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, Nov. 2007, Volume 32, Issue 6, pp. 394-399, www.progressivehealth.com/boost-serotonin.htm.
  3. Exercise– Natural StressCare: Heal Anxiety and Depression, Law, Duane, L.Ac., http://www.naturalstresscare.org/Exercise.aspx.
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3 Responses to Wash your brain by working your body

  1. Bravo! Great article full of well-researched information and topped off with a very healthy dose of personal experience. I couldn’t agree more about the many benefits of physical exercise!

  2. gilpeters1 says:

    Thanks so much for your kind words, Nancy Thompson. And, for anyone reading this comment, check out Nancy’s spectacular travel blog, justabackpackandarollie.

  3. Charles Calley says:

    Gil — Great column! I’ve been admiring your discipline for at least 20 years. I wish I had some. I can’t even do my 10 minutes of yoga I should be doing every morning. — Charlie

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