Brain Scans Show Exercise Benefits

There is little doubt that exercise is good for you. It has both physical and mental boosts to a person’s body and mind. A new imaging study hopes to solve exactly how exercise provides this important benefit.

In an imaging study conducted by scientists at the University of California, Davis Health system, it was discovered that vigorous exercise boosted certain brain chemicals. These chemicals help people to ward off severe depression.

The study, which is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that there might be a role for exercise in boosting the mood of people with major depressive disorder. People who suffer from this condition often have low levels of these chemicals.

In the study, the UC Davis scientists studied 38 healthy volunteers and asked them to pedal on a stationary bicycle. The volunteers pedaled for between 8 and 20 minutes, reaching 85% of their maximum heart rate.

A brain scan revealed increased levels of two important neurotransmitters. These chemicals- glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), were only elevated in those who exercised. Those who did not exercise showed no increase in these chemicals.

Major depressive disorder is often characterized by depleted levels of glutamate and GABA. These levels often return to normal when mental health is restored. The study shows that physical exercise activates the pathways that replenish these neurotransmitters.

While exercise will not help everyone with major depressive disorder, many will see improvement. The indication is that doctors can now identify the patients who would most benefit from a prescription not for medication, but for exercise.

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