More studies have to be done to know if exercising can actually “cure” anxiety and depression, but we do know that it can reduce the symptoms and effects of both mental disorders. When you exercise, the brain creates two different types of neurons, along with increasing the level of certain potent chemicals, all which have a positive effect on your mood.
Two Types of Neurons
Exercising creates new neurons in the area of the brain associated with thinking and emotions and fall into two groups: excitable and calm-inducing. The new excitable type increases neuron firing in the brain and therefore should increase anxiety and depression, but the second type of newly created neuron is designed to release the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA, which prevents neurons from excessively firing, thus having a calming effect in the brain, much the same way the medications Ativan, Xanax, and Valium work. They, too, boost the action of GABA neurotransmitters to reduce neuron firing.
This calming effect is not only immediate post-workout, but keeps working long after your workout has ended. As a matter of fact, exercising has such a calming effect that some psychologists recommend an exercise regimen as part of a treatment plan for depression, anxiety and a whole host of other mood disorders.
The “Feel Good” Chemicals
Exercising increases the release of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These “feel good” hormones have a calming effect, thus relieving stress and improving mood. That is why people feel happy and relaxed after exercising – the “runner’s high” that you may have read about.
What Type of Exercise is Best?
According to a review of 100 studies recently published by Duke University, yoga is the most beneficial as far as improving mental health. Not only did yoga make people with anxiety and depression feel calmer, sharper and more content, but the review found yoga also helped people cope with disorders such as sleep problems, schizophrenia, and ADHD.
Yoga works much the same way as antidepressants do by boosting GABA neurotransmitters and serotonin in the brain. Some of the studies in the review reported anxiety scores (on a scale of 20–80) fell from 34 to 25 after three months of regular yoga sessions, showing a significant decrease in anxiety.
As encouraging as the data is, don’t stop taking any prescribed meds on your own. If you don’t think your meds are working as well as they should, talk to your medical professional about implementing an exercise program into your overall treatment plan to see if that helps.