Vigorous exercise boosts the brain's serotonin levels, creating a feeling of calmness and peace. For years I've told my stress patients that if they do something that gets them breathing deeply for twenty minutes every day it'll amplify everything else I do for them.
Tryptophan, the smallest amino acid, is used by the brain to make serotonin. Serotonin calms the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus; overactive neuronal activity in these brain structures has been linked with anxiety and depression. The various amino acids share transport pathways into the brain and therefore compete with each other to get in. Under normal circumstances the little tryptophan molecule gets crowded out by the much larger molecules of other amino acids. But during exercise tryptophan is released from albumin into the blood at the same time that all the larger amino acids are getting shunted off to hardworking muscle tissue - this leaves the brain's molecular door wide open for tryptophan.1,2 The tryptophan floods in, converts to serotonin and . . . voila . . . exercise relaxes us and contributes to an upbeat frame of mind.3,4 Exercise also releases endorphins, naturally occurring substances that mimic opiates. This amplifies feelings of relaxed well-being.5
Exercise lowers blood pressure.6 Numerous studies show it increases self-esteem and concentration as it calms depression and anxiety7,8,9
Here's a story I tell my patients who ask me about resuming exercise after recovering from an injury. I tell them about a case I had years ago with a bad knee. Several weeks of acupuncture didn't do much for him, which happens sometimes, especially in lower limb problems when the patient won't be talked into getting some crutches and giving the leg or foot a chance to heal while I work with them. The patient discontinued treatment.
I was at a bookstore a year or two later when I heard laughing across the store. I looked over and there was this same guy. I walked over, curious about what he was so amused by.
It was me. He asked me, "do you want to know what finally fixed that knee?" Of course I said yes.
He said, "I went to ..." and he named a trail, notorious in our area for being very steep for a good long first mile. "The first day I took five steps, my knee started to hurt, I turned around and went back down. The next day I went back, took six steps, turned around and went back down. The next day I went back, took seven steps ...." and so on.
The point here, particularly if you haven't been exercising, is to take it slowly. Don't assume just because you feel young that your body will react to a sudden vigorous change in exercise routine gracefully. If you're over 40, it's a good idea to get a physical if you haven't had one for awhile.
And especially if you're recovering from an injury, please take your time. The best exercise routines increase the demand on a recovering joint or limb exquisitely gradually, every day.
That's one of my biggest problems as an acupuncturist, actually. It's fairly simple to help most acute or chronic pain complaints feel better. But they feel better before they are better. The most common mistake my patients make is to start trying to resume normal exercise routines before they're ready. If pain improves quickly it's best to give it a week at least before attempting anything demanding and then, again, gradually.
1. Amen, Daniel G. 1998. Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. New York: Times Books. 79-80.
2. Struder, H.K. et al. 1995. Amino acid metabolism in tennis and its possible influence on the neuroendocrine system. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 29(1):28-30.
3. Struder, H.K., Weicker, H. 2001. Physiology and pathophysiology of the serotogenic system and its implications on mental and physical performance. Part II. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 22(7):482-497.
4. Lombard, Jay and Germano, Carl. 2000. The Brain Wellness Plan. New York: Kensington Books. 244.
5. Amen, Ibid. 78-79.
6. Kurz, R.W., et al. 2005. Evaluation of costs and effectiveness of an integrated training program for hypertensive patients. Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift. 117(15-16):526-533.
7. Fox, K.R. 1999. The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public Health Nutrition. 2(3A):411-418.
8. Broocks, A. 2005. Psychological effects of regular exercises. Bundesgesundheitsblatt Gesundheitsforschung Gesundheitsschutz. 48(8):914-921.
9. Broocks, A., 1997. Value of sports in treatment of psychiatric illness. Psychotherapie, Pschosomatik, Medizinische Psychologie. 47(11):379-393.