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A Couch Potato Lifestyle Increases Anxiety. Get Active!

by Karen Martin

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Not long ago, it was an accepted biological phenomenon that brain loses its plasticity —the ability to form new brain cells— as one becomes an adult. The theory was that after adolescence, the shape of the brain cells becomes rigid. However, recent neurological evidence has shown that a brain cell can change its shape throughout its lifetime.

The same set of studies has pointed out that exercise plays an important role in the restructuring of the brain. It aids to create new brain cells, making the brain to adapt to new challenges. At the same time, exercise calms the specific parts of the brain by inducing a pattern of serenity. Similarly, a recent paper in The Journal of Comparative Neurology explains that an inactive life in front of a screen (AKA Couch Potato), can also remodel the brain. However, it does for the worse.

couch potato

Another study at the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences of the Deakin University, illustrates how a life without much physical activities, changes the shape of certain neurons related to anxiety. A sedentary life does not help the brain much and leaves inactive individuals vulnerable to anxiety attacks.


How Anxiety Works

anxious person

We all are born with brain cells that have definite predispositions, and by nature, some of those cells can get more excited than the others. They can be triggered with the slightest of provocation or stress. In life and death situations, the triggering of neurons is helpful; however, in other cases, they are counterproductive. As stress has become an inseparable element in our life, the frequent triggering of certain neurons can limit our functioning abilities. This leads to anxiety, which can manifest physiologically and psychologically and weaken our normal functions.


The Role of Hormones and Neurotransmitters in Anxiety

brain functions

Image Source: TheBrain.McGill


It’s important to note that different parts of the brain work together to create anxiety. Among those parts, amygdala and hippocampus, which lie close to each other, play the central role. Amygdala, an almond shaped structure, is a fight-and-flight center, which detects fear and prepares for emergency events; whereas, hippocampus, a structure at the base of the brain, is the center of memory and emotions.

Once amygdala anticipates stress, together with hippocampus, it activates a division of the nervous system that controls unconscious actions of the body, and directs it to release a stress hormone, corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH). At the same time, a neurotransmitter, known as nor-epinephrine, is released, which carries messages to the organs of the body system. As a result, the heartbeat increases rapidly, blood pressure shoots up, and breathing becomes deep. The reactions manifest in anxiety.

anxious brain

Image source: Dr. Gaglioti

To counterbalance anxiety, a couple of neurotransmitters are involved: GABA (Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid) and serotonin; helping to inhibit the stress response.

A sedentary life can lead to the remodeling of the brain that interferes with the neurotransmitters and their functioning, causing heightened response to slight provocation, which manifests in anxiety among people.


How an Active Life Helps the Brain

happy girl yoga

The hippocampus of physically active people behaves significantly differently from sedentary individuals. The hippocampus of active folks has more brain cells, and these inhibitory neurons —which counterbalance anxiety— are more activated, which considerably lowers anxiety in stressful situations.

Exercise stimulates the release of neurotransmitters —serotonin and dopamine— which lifts the mood, and enhances emotions and cognitive abilities. Thus, if a person embraces an active lifestyle, the brain goes under remodeling with a notable number of nanny neurons that release GABA —a counterbalance transmitter— which keeps excessive firing of neurons under control in stressful conditions. In other words, the system shushes the stress.

The hippocampus of active people is likely to be less susceptible to stress than that of sedentary people. And as stress is related to many mortal physiological conditions, people with the ability to contain stress effectively tend to live longer.

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