The other day, I was having a tough time. My low back was hurting me (muscle spasms). I’d had a rough meeting at work – lots of contention, not much clarity or resolution. I had an hour between meetings, but it was pretty cruddy outside. Motivation was low, and overall frustration was high.
I figured I couldn’t go wrong trying to fit a short, easy run in. Didn’t set any speed records, but it definitely calmed me down a bunch. It almost always works like this too.
I was reading an article in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks back about this. The article claims that exercise actually leads to the development of neurons that are "specifically buffered from exposure to a stressful experience". The subjects in the study "had created, through running, a brain that seemed biochemically, molecularly, calm".
My first response was "didn’t we know this already?". Well – it’s been suspected that exercise stimulates growth of new brain cells, but it was apparently not yet established how these cells are functionally different from others. The Princeton study cited in the article lays the basis for understanding these differences. Another interesting distinction drawn in the article is how exercise might directly affect mood and anxiety. We’ve taken for granted that exercise "enhances mood", but did not really understand what this means.
When listening to your own body and mind, it’s easy to surmise that exercise is a great mood equalizer. It’s difficult to tell whether this is due to the psychological effect of choosing to stress your body a bit. Doing so is bound to shift your mind away from unpleasant thoughts. The positive effect of taking a challenge on will also elevate your mood. So – we already have diversionary qualities as well as results from "opting into" challenge as a means to test yourself.
But it’s apparently the case that you’re actively changing the way your brain is physiologically made up as well.
You should check out the article for yourself and draw your own conclusions. It’s definitely worth a read.