Keep Moving to Help You Move On
Enhancing stress resilience stabilizes mood, increases tenacity, and improves performance under pressure. Early studies show that exercise could be a foolproof way to enhance stress resilience. We know exercise is great for the body: it reduces total body inflammation, improves cardiovascular health, and reduces fat accumulation, but it could also protect against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Improved stress resilience reduces the odds of traumatic events causing brain damage. Stress resilience can also prevent changes in brain structure that cause depressive or anxious thought patterns. Scientists observed the effect of exercise on stress resilience, and found that exercise had a protective effect on the rodent brain.
Half of the animals (rats) in this study were exposed to a predator-scent stress in the form of used cat litter-boxes (yuck). Rats know these smells from birth, which to them signal life-threatening predators. Stresses such as these have been shown to decrease dendritic branching: the ability of neurons to send new projections out to one another. Increased dendritic complexity in the brain leads to an increased number of connections, resulting in more potential brain power. Stress resilience means that in the event of a traumatic event, we can recover more quickly and move on with our lives, instead of being trapped in shock. Interestingly enough, deficiencies in dendritic branching were only found in stressed group not given a wheel to exercise with. Rats that were exposed to the scent but ran on the wheel had the same dendritic complexity as the controls. The fourth group, which did exercise but was exposed to fresh litter showed similar results as well. A non-significant trend was observed for the total number of dendrites, although it did suggest impairment in the sedentary group. The enhanced stress resilience observed in the exercise group suggests that there are changes in the brain that protect against stress-induced deficiencies.
The results of this study suggest that traumatic events cause concentrated stress that can cause lasting changes in brain function. These changes are manifested in symptoms like PTSD. By establishing an exercise habit before any potential traumatic events, we might protect ourselves from stress in the future. Although this study in particular examined an acute form of stress, it seems likely that exercise could be protective against chronic sources. We already know that exercise increases endorphin release, which can relieve stress and boost positive mood. The specific anti-depressive effects of exercise are still being researched. So far, however, the right type of exercise to reduce depression seems to be anything that makes you sweat significantly. You can also enhance stress resilience through other methods such as proper diet, natural laughter, framing, state control and meditation. Many of the mechanisms involved in stress resilience are shared by depression and anxiety, therefore managing stress should be a top priority.