I normally take my exercise in the mornings with a dash of bleary-eyed reluctance. But ten minutes into my run or circuit I get a sense of ‘Ahh, thank God I came.’ It feels like having an emotional shower, as though the stale stress and anxiety is lifting off my body in the same way the sweat beads are forming and evaporating. Let me just say I have had no real evidence for this – until now.
Today, a report published in the Journal of Neuroscience has caught up with my theories clearly proving me ahead of the thinkers’ pack again. The research team, based at Princeton University found that physical activity reorganizes the brain so that its response to stress is reduced, making it less likely to interfere with brain function.
During the experiments, running produced a large increase in the number of new neurons in the hippocampus – the part of the brain that regulates anxiety – in mice that ran regularly for six weeks. The research also found that the neurons in the active mice also released more of the brain neurotransmitter gamma –aminobutyric acid or GABA, which calms an anxious and excitable brain. The researchers concluded that ‘exercise reorganizes the brain to be more resilient to stress’ – really just another way of saying emotional shower, I think.
This morning I was knackered after a late night – a combination of working late and a hopeless addiction to watching Breaking Bad re-runs on Netflix (off topic but I hear there is going to be a Saul Goodman spin-off #besttvnewsever). So I opted out. As I was doing my make-up my mind was disordered and edgey and my hand even shook a little like an old pensioner’s while I applied eyeliner. I could feel the stresses from yesterday cooking in my body, the worries about the day ahead basting themselves in my synapses. This was between 7am and 8am, normally the ‘magic hour’ when I move, run, lift, jump and sweat like nothing else matters (when I am finished that’s often how it feels).
But today, I felt jittery and revvy, anxious about the day ahead and not even able to properly focus properly on applying my mascara. Sounds like drug withdrawal, I know and it probably is one of sorts. Who isn’t familiar with the old endorphin rush that turns rational human beings into desert crossing running machines? It made me wonder whether that feeling was how I would feel every day if I didn’t exercise.
Building and maintaining this site along with my busy job as a freelance journalist has meant the last six months have been spent in a boggle-eyed frenzy of stories, interviews, coders, video shoots, business meeting gobble-dy-gook and everything sort of almost breaking every other day. I realised this morning that without exercise and under the kind of pressure I have been lately I probably would have had a breakdown. I certainly didn’t want to feel like that every morning.
For the rest of the day – today – I’ve felt as though I’ve been playing mental catch up with myself, coughing out the words in my stories as though there is a coating of dust on the surface of my brain that’s stopping the neurons from firing with their usual ease. The day feels a little harder, my fuse a good bit shorter.
Irony is, when we’re stressed, most of us – myself included, this morning being a classic example – we think we’re too stressed to exercise, but the Princeton research is proof that that is precisely when we need it most.
I spoke to trainer Kelly Du Boisson recently about this. Du Boisson specialises in exercise for the anxious and stressed and has created of The City Workout, aimed at pressured, adrenalin-fuelled professionals with little time and a tendency towards stress eating.
Workouts are progressive and tailored to all levels. They’re between four and 30 minutes done three times a week over six weeks at home, in the gym or outside. It’s based on Tabata training – popular with athletes and a bit de rigeur right now – which encourages you to use all your effort in as little as four minutes through exercises that challenge the entire body such as squats, lunges, rows and planks.
It comes with a ‘clean eating’ nutrition programme that lowers caffeine, refined carb and alcohol intake to change stress-eating habits. ‘People don’t turn to sugar as much because exercise is giving them a natural high and they realize eating better foods boosts their performance’.
You sign up on a secret Facebook site where Du Boisson posts the workouts three times a week and interact with other people on the workout but your friends can’t see what you’re doing. The-city-workout.com or search The City Workout on Facebook. Next course starts in the last week of July.