Study Pinpoints the Reason Exercise Alleviates Symptoms of Depression

Photo by Curtis Mac Newton

You probably know that exercise helps with symptoms of depression. It’s the first piece of advice most of us get from our doctors when we go in to talk about how bad we feel: “Have you tried getting regular exercise?” Whether we take it or not, it’s generally good advice. But why, exactly? The endorphin rush? Extra sunlight?

According to neuroscientists at the University of California, Davis, we may need to think smaller. A study that has just been published in the Journal of Neuroscience points to two common neurotransmitters: glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Glutamate is involved in cognition and emotional processing while GABA deficiencies are often linked with anxiety.

The study, Acute Modulation of Cortical Glutamate and GABA Content by Physical Activity, found that vigorous bouts of exercises significantly increase levels of both glutamate and GABA. Christopher Bergland, an author and athlete who has written about the links between exercise, GABA and anxiety in The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and Biology of Bliss, explores these results for Psychology Today, offering advice on how to integrate them into your own workout routine:

As a coach, I always recommend mixing up your levels of aerobic intensity. To optimize the full spectrum of brain benefits, the latest research suggests that short bursts of intense exercise can trigger the production of GABA and glutamate. When deciding to increase the intensity of your exercise, always use common sense and consult with your doctor first.

Based on the latest findings, this type of workout will kickstart your GABA and glutamate production and improve both your physical and mental fitness without shocking your body. Also, at the end of a 30-minute workout, you would have spent 15 minutes biking at a more intense pace than usual. This increases your VO2 and will eventually allow you to work out harder with less perceived exertion.

If you don’t already have a workout routine (and you’d hardly be alone in that), this news might be good motivation to invest time in a Couch to 5k-type plan. Vigorous exercise can be fun and rewarding, but those first few steps aren’t easy, so don’t be afraid to start slow and get a little help along the way.

[Psychology Today]
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