Relieve Stress and Anxiety with Exercise in the New Year

Group of Young People Exercising in a Gym

Credit: iStock

If getting more exercise is one of your New Year’s resolutions, here is another reason to stick with it: daily exercise—which is known to lower blood pressure—has also been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. I am not the first to notice that physical activity improves my ability to respond to stressful situations, but as a physiologist, I naturally wonder about the biological basis of this observation.

The hippocampus—one of the brain regions that regulates anxiety levels—becomes activated during both exercise and stress. Research suggests that exercise can calm some of the nerve cells in the hippocampus that become overstimulated during times of stress. While we don’t fully understand the mechanisms, we do know that certain chemical signals in the brain inhibit nerve cell activity, and some of these signals are likely responsible for the observed reduction in stress and anxiety.

Reduced anxiety and stress immediately after physical activity is not the only benefit of exercise. Blood pressure also declines to healthier levels within minutes after exercising. Studies suggest that exercise causes vasodilation, or widening of the blood vessels. When blood vessels open wider, it allows the blood to flow more easily, thereby lowering the pressure of the blood inside the vessels. Activation of histamine receptors is one mechanism that contributes to the reduction in blood pressure following exercise.

While there are many other benefits to regular exercise, the reductions in stress and blood pressure occur immediately and last for many hours. So, consider engaging in a physically active lifestyle that includes daily exercise, and encourage family and friends to join in. The result could be less stress, less anxiety, and lower blood pressure. What better way to start 2018?

william-farquharWilliam B. Farquhar, PhD, is a professor in the department of kinesiology and applied physiology at the University of Delaware. In addition to being a member of the American Physiological Society, he is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.

 

Keeping the Juices Flowing with Beets

Beetroot Juice

Credit: iStock

With the new year upon us, many people are setting new goals for themselves related to improving their health or focusing on career-related goals. If establishing better exercise and nutrition habits are part of your quest to attain optimal health and productivity in 2018, you are not alone. New gym memberships are likely to rise in the coming months, and some may try nutritional products such as fruit and vegetable juice concoctions touted to enhance performance and overall health. The global juicing industry has gained a lot of traction in the last several years due to a wider health awareness among consumers. Emerging evidence suggests that casting beets in the starring role of your juice habit—along with aerobic exercise—may be one potential route to improving your cardiovascular health, and more recently shown, brain health.

Beets are a good source of antioxidants, minerals and nitrates. The nitrate-rich properties of beets have caught the attention of researchers, particularly those in the field of vascular medicine. Nitrates in food are converted to nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide relaxes the walls of the arteries, lowering blood pressure and increasing blood flow to muscles. That is one of the reasons why the nitrates in beetroot juice have been shown to enhance exercise performance in high-performing athletes, as well as in less elite exercisers.

In addition to the cardiovascular and performance benefits of consuming beets, recent studies suggest that the root vegetable may also be linked to brain health. One study found that older adults who performed aerobic exercise for six weeks and drank beetroot juice daily had greater improvements in brain activity related to movement than the participants who exercised without drinking beetroot juice. The brain networks of the juicing group more closely resembled the brains of younger adults, suggesting that when combined with exercise, beets can enhance the brain’s ability to make new connections between brain cells. Another study showed that young adults who drank a single dose of beetroot juice had increased blood flow to the area of the brain involved in higher-order thinking. The study participants also fared better in cognitive tasks such as basic math.

So, before you lace up your running shoes or settle back into your office chair, consider topping off with a dose of beetroot to keep the juices flowing.

 

Yasina Somani cropYasina Somani, MS, is a PhD student in the Cardiovascular Aging and Exercise Lab at Penn State. She is interested in studying the effects of novel exercise and nutritional therapies on cardiovascular outcomes in both healthy and clinical populations.

 

Look on the Bright Side—It May Improve Your Health

half full

Credit: iStock

If you tend to see the proverbial glass as half empty instead of half full, you may want to rethink your position. Looking on the bright side and expecting good things to happen may have a positive effect on your physical health. An optimistic outlook on life may reduce your cardiovascular disease risk, lower blood pressure and improve overall health and longevity. It can also reduce sensitivity to pain and may help people manage chronic pain more easily.

You may be skeptical or cautiously optimistic about this. How can simple optimism lead to good health? The answer is still not entirely clear, but scientists are slowly uncovering the biological details. They’ve learned that the body’s response to stress may be an important factor.

When the body is stressed, it sends biological messengers called stress hormones into the bloodstream to tell different organs to respond in various ways. One of the major stress hormones is cortisol. When cortisol is high, the body responds by making unhealthy amounts of certain substances (such as cholesterol) that can harm the heart. These substances may damage and cause inflammation in the blood vessels. Inflammation may also lead to more damage in the circulatory system. This unfavorable chain of events may increase the risk of heart disease.

People who look on the bright side may be more likely to have markers of good health—including lower stress hormone levels—even when they face stressful situations. One study found rats with pessimistic behavior traits had more inflammation than their optimistic counterparts. Lower cortisol and inflammation levels may be due to decreased activity of the fight-or-flight nervous response, although more research is needed.

Motivation may also play a role in boosting the health of optimists. People who think positively may be more motivated and tend to make more of an effort in social interactions than those who are pessimistic. This can lead to healthier social connections and an increase in beneficial behaviors such as exercising regularly and following a healthy diet. The motivational aspects of optimism (or pessimism) may also affect a person’s behavioral response to stress.

December 21 is “Look on the bright side” day. Try a visualization exercise to boost your optimism. It may have a positive effect on your overall health.

Audrey Vasauskas

Go Ahead, Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve!

Jousting Competition

A jousting knight wears his heart on his sleeve. Credit: iStock

In medieval times, a jousting knight would wear the colors of the lady he was courting tied around his arm. Hence, the phrase “Wear your heart on your sleeve” was born. Today, we use this romantic phrase to describe someone who expresses their emotions openly. How applicable that ancient phrase really is to maintaining a healthy heart!

In a landmark paper, a group of scientists discussed how stress and social interactions with others affected the health of the heart. It is well-known that stress is a major factor in the development of heart disease. This is because stress is a double whammy: It activates the “fight-or-flight” nervous response, and it causes inflammation in the cells that line blood vessels. Both of these events can damage blood vessels in the heart.

Research shows that positive social interaction expressing emotion is important for heart health. Support from a spouse or partner, friends or other groups can reduce stress and help you stick to a healthy diet and exercise program to minimize your risks.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, with annual deaths creeping up to 24 million. Reducing stress and anxiety is an important aspect of keeping your heart healthy. Exercise, yoga, meditation and even deep breathing can promote a sense of calm when tensions mount. Try running or yoga with a friend or join an exercise class to keep you on track for a healthy heart. Go ahead, wear your heart on your sleeve—it’s good for you!

February is American Heart Month. You can find more information about keeping your ticker ticking on the American Heart Association’s website.

Audrey Vasauskas

Depression + Pregnancy = Diabetes?

Pregnant Frown

Credit: IStock

Morning sickness, swollen ankles and a growing belly are just a few of the many physiological changes that women experience during pregnancy. The changes  we can see are just the tip of the iceberg. Blood volume, bones, heart rate, skin and many other parts of a woman’s body function differently during pregnancy.

Pregnancy-related changes can sometimes lead to more serious health consequences for mother and baby during pregnancy and beyond. For example, gestational diabetes—a temporary condition in which the body can’t process sugar during pregnancy the way it usually does—can lead to a higher risk of other pregnancy complications, including having a large baby and increased chances of developing diabetes mellitus down the road. Now researchers have found a link between gestational diabetes and depression during pregnancy, a condition which affects an estimated 13 percent of moms-to-be.

A recent study showed that women who had more symptoms of depression in the first and second trimesters were at the greatest risk of developing gestational diabetes. The study also found that women who had gestational diabetes were four times more likely to develop postpartum depression after giving birth. Researchers say the relationship between the two conditions needs more study, but they think that the chemical changes in the brain that occur with depression during pregnancy may affect how we break down sugar.

These links emphasize the need to tune in to emotional shifts that many pregnant women experience. When crying jags and lack of energy lasts for more than two weeks or if symptoms get increasingly worse, it may be more than just pregnancy hormones at work. Women should also look out for the physical symptoms of depression which may include:

  • headaches
  • general aches and pains
  • stomach problems
  • loss of appetite (which may sometimes be mistaken for a side effect of morning sickness)

Now that doctors are learning more about the link between depression and gestational diabetes, they can monitor their patients more closely for both conditions during pregnancy. For more information about depression during and after pregnancy, visit the federal Office on Women’s Health website.

Erica Roth