New research is suggesting that there is such a thing as “mental fitness” that is derived from exercise. Richard Maddock, a professor from the UC Davis Health Systems, recently published a study in the Journal of Neroscience that is suggesting that vigorous exercise has the same effects on depression that anti-depressant pharmaceutical drugs do. The key is an increase in the brain’s production of two neurotransmitters: glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
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Scientists have always known that that the brain is a very energy-hungry organ and requires glucose and carbohydrates to support itself. What’s surprising about this particular study is that it showed exactly what the brain does with all of that energy when we exercise. The brain has it’s own metabolism, and exercise ramps it up just like our body’s metabolism. Maddock says, “From a metabolic standpoint, vigorous exercise is the most demanding activity the brain encounters, much more intense than calculus or chess, but nobody knows what happens with all that energy. Apparently, one of the things it’s doing is making more neurotransmitters.”
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Another interesting aspect of the research showed that the phenomenon of “hitting the wall” when you are exercising and are extremely fatigued could have nothing to do with our muscles. Maddock says, “It is not clear what causes people to ‘hit the wall’ or get suddenly fatigued when exercising. We often think of this point in terms of muscles being depleted of oxygen and energy molecules.
But part of it may be that the brain has reached its limit.”
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Shedding light on the effects of exercise on the brain could actually help develop treatments for depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders that are a result of lower levels of neurotransmitters. According to Maddock, “Major depressive disorder is often characterized by depleted glutamate and GABA, which return to normal when mental health is restored. Our study shows that exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters.”
He went on to say, “We are offering another view on why regular physical activity may be important to prevent or treat depression. Not every depressed person who exercises will improve, but many will. It’s possible that we can help identify the patients who would most benefit from an exercise prescription.”