SELF writer Ginny Graves has covered the research of SMU psychologist Dr. Jasper Smits. The article in the latest issue of SELF, “How Exercise Can Make You Happy (in Just 20 Minutes!),” quotes Smits, an associate professor of psychology, on his research finding that high levels of physical activity can buffer against stress for those who are at risk.

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By Ginny Graves

It turns out that stressing the body by working out de-stresses the mind. We tested the effect on four sedentary women who were feeling frazzled, and the proof is in: mood-boosting, life-changing results.
By Ginny Graves

Woman A is having a bad day. First, her boss comes by and barks at her for missing a deadline. Then her mom calls and guilt-trips her for forgetting her aunt’s birthday. Oh, and that new guy she has been texting? He’s MIA.

Her stress hormones—cortisol and adrenaline—are surging. In her brain, cortisol is binding with receptors in the hippocampus, the seat of memory formation and learning. For now, this will hone her recall. But if she doesn’t get her stress in check, over time, key connections between nerve cells in her brain won’t function as well, impairing her memory and her ability to take in new information, and raising her risk for depression and anxiety.

All she knows is that she’s overwhelmed. So at lunch, she heads to the gym and hops onto the elliptical. As her heart begins to pound, levels of the feel-good neurochemicals serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine rise in her body. So does brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a substance that may protect her brain from emotional disorders and repair damage that stress and depression cause. At the same time, opiate-like endorphins and endocannabinoids (similar to the other kind of cannabis) flood her system, leading to a sense of well-being. …

… Unlike those deprived mice, Woman A is feeling so good that she cranks up the elliptical. As she does, her body begins releasing gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a calming neurotransmitter. Not that she is calm, exactly; she’s subjecting her system to a low-level form of stress. “Exercise raises your heart rate and triggers a surge of hormonal changes. Expose yourself to this ‘stress’ enough and your body builds up immunity to it. Eventually, it will get better at handling the rest of life’s stressors,” says clinical psychologist Jasper Smits, Ph.D., coauthor of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety. But stay sedentary and your body can become more sensitive to stress, so even minor triggers leave you tied up in knots. …

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