By Molly Campbell, University of Leeds, @mollyrcampbell
Exercise – for some, it’s a hobby, for others, a burden. We all know exercise is good for us. Yet, ironically, many people feel too busy or stressed to exercise regularly. Particularly during exam time, who wants to swap an hour of revision for an hour of tiring yourself out?
Research actually suggests that committing to exercise when you are experiencing stress can lower your stress response both now, and in the future. Regular exercise can be particularly helpful in boosting your mood, and thus your motivation to do work. Scientific research suggests that exercise elevates molecules in the body associated with the feeling of joy, whilst decreasing those that cause stress.
Post-exercise feelings of bliss
The term ‘runner’s high’ was coined in the 1970’s following an apparent worldwide increase in the number of people running long distance. This feeling of elation was attributed to the increased levels of endorphins in runners’ blood after exercise. Since then, many studies have been conducted that expand on this work to clarify exactly how exercise produces this ‘feel good’ effect.
Exercise also increases the release of endocannabinoids in the body. These are a type of cannabinoid that are endogenous, meaning they are made within our body. Endocannabinoids serve as a message between cells. Cells receive the message when the endocannabinoid attaches to another molecule, called a receptor, on the outside of a receiver cell. The receiver cells for endocannabinoids are in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) as well as other parts of the body. This elicits a wide range of beneficial effects.
The chemical anandamide, one type of endocannabinoid, gets its name from the Sanskrit word ‘ananda’ meaning joy. It is created in areas of the brain involved in motivation, memory, and higher cognitive function. Whilst its exact function has not been clarified, increased levels of anandamide are associated with states of heightened happiness. Anandamide can enter the brain through the so-called blood-brain barrier. This means that an increase of anandamide in the blood is followed by an increase of the chemical in the brain.
An experiment by Elsa Heyman and her colleagues demonstrated that, following a period of intense exercise, cyclists have increased levels of anandamide in their blood (1). This increase in anandamide was correlated with the increase of a molecule that is extremely important for the growth and maintenance of neurons in the brain, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
Johannes Fuss and his colleagues used mouse models to demonstrate that exercising on a running wheel produced a significant increase in anandamide levels, which was correlated with a substantial reduction in anxious behaviours (2). When the researchers gave the mice a drug to block the cannabinoid receptors, to which anandamide binds, this reduction in anxiety was reversed.
Together, these findings therefore suggest an emerging role for the endocannabinoid system in producing the feeling of well-being and stress relief people experience after exercise. However, anandamide is broken down in the body very rapidly, possibly explaining why exercise is most beneficial when done regularly.
Sweat away your stress
Susanne Droste and her colleagues investigated the short-term effects of exercise on stress hormones in mice (3). Adult male mice were provided access to a running wheel for four weeks before undergoing a series of behavioural tests. Exercising mice were found to exhibit a significant decrease in corticosterone (the equivalent of the stress hormone, cortisol, in rodents) responses to a novel environment compared to control animals that had not exercised. These animals were also found to be less anxious in behavioural tests.
Researchers have also found long-term changes in the stress response after repeated exercise. Mindfulness experts suggest exercise, such as running or yoga, can indeed be a meditation practice carried out ‘on the go’. By placing focus on the repetitive movement of our joints and the increase in our heart rate, and the general effects exercise exerts on our body, we are distracted from the thoughts circling through our mind. Repeatedly applying this focus, particularly when high levels of stress cause us to be entangled in our thoughts, can produce long-term changes in the bodily tools we rely on to calm down. Ann Kennedy and her colleagues found that several studies show that this improves breathing rate and depth, lowers heart rate, and increases our ‘rest and digest’ response, or the so-called parasympathetic nervous system (4).
Although it may seem a chore to take time out of the day to get your body in motion, research about our physiology suggests that your brain (and therefore your grades) will benefit from doing so!
- Heyman, E. Gamelin, F.X., Goekint, M., Piscitelli, F., Roelands, B., Leclair, E., Di Marzo, V. and Meeusen, R. 2012. Intense exercise increases circulating endocannabinoid and BDNF levels in humans—possible implications for reward and depression. 37(6), pp. 844-851.
- Fuss, J. Steinle, J., Bindila, L., Auer, M., Kirchherr, H., Lutz, B. and Gass, P. Runners high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice. PNAS. 112(42).
- Droste, S.K., Gesing, A., Ulbricht, S., Muller, M.B., Linthorst, A.C and Reul, J.M. 2003. Effects of long-term voluntary exercise on the mouse hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis. Endocrinology. 144(7), pp. 3012-3023.
- Kennedy, A. and Resnick, P. 2015. Mindfulness and Physical Activity. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 9(13), pp. 221-223.