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Stressed Out? A New Study Says to Do This Exercise for 20 Minutes

Here's how running is especially helpful at chilling out your mind.

According to the leading health experts the Cleveland Clinic, stress is essentially defined as "a normal reaction the body has when changes occur, resulting in physical, emotional, and intellectual responses." While it's true that stress is universal, anyone who's experienced a bout of intense or overwhelming stress will tell you it feels anything but normal.

There's a reason stress can be so intense. After all, our "sense of stress" evolved over hundreds of years as a survival mechanism. Today, however, most people's stress responses are firing when nothing resembling survival is at stake—deadlines at work, long lines at the store, or a poor internet connection. Still, the heart pounds, sweat appears, breathing speeds up, and muscles tense up.

Stress wreaks havoc on our minds as much as our bodies. Think back on the last time you were feeling particularly anxious or stressed. Chances are, the details of that day are probably pretty fuzzy. When we're stressed, our minds are hyper-focused on whatever's bothering us. Consequently, there's less neural power to go around for other important tasks like memory formation or critical thinking.

"The brain [starts] shunting its resources because it's in survival mode, not memory mode," Kerry Ressler, M.D., chief scientific officer at McLean Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told Harvard Health Publishing.

Fortunately, research published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory indicates there is something you can do to help mitigate the effects of stress on the brain. Read on to learn more. And for more ways to relax your brain while working out your body, don't miss The One Major Side Effect of Walking Every Day, According to Science.

Run Away Those Stressful Thoughts

Triathlon - Triathlete man running in triathlon suit training for ironman race. Male runner exercising on Big Island Hawaii. Sunset.

Running is loved by some and hated by more, but this study makes a strong case that nothing soothes a stressed mind quite like a quality run. Study authors conclude that running actively mitigates the negative effect of chronic stress on the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain in charge of both learning and memory.

"Exercise is a simple and cost-effective way to eliminate the negative impacts on memory of chronic stress," says study senior author Jeff Edwards, associate professor of physiology and developmental biology at Brigham Young University. And for more great exercise advice, make sure you know why Science Says This Abs Exercise Is the Single Best You Can Do.

What Happens to Your Brain

woman hollywood walking in the AM

It's important to touch on how the hippocampus functions before diving into the details of this research. The mind's inter-neuronal synapses (connections) are constantly working to strengthen and reinforce both memory formation and recollection. This ongoing process of synaptic strengthening is called long-term potentiation. Chronic or prolonged stress episodes throw a wrench into that process by weakening synapses. This causes a domino effect: LPT is hindered which ultimately leads to impaired memory function.

These findings suggest that going for a roughly 20-minute run around the same time as a stressful episode can stop this from happening on a neurological level. When exercise "co-occurred" with stress, LPT levels didn't decrease but stayed the same.

How The Researchers Tested This

Young smiling attractive sporty girl runner in shorts and sleeveless shirt keeps her leg raised while warming up and stretching outdoors at stadium of university campus seen on background

Professor Edwards and his team reached these conclusions via an experiment involving lab mice. Now, rodents may seem like a far cry from you or me, but it's common practice for mice to be used in research geared toward humans, especially brain studies. Why? Mice and humans actually share many DNA similarities, and their brains are structured quite similarly to people. In this way, rodents and mice make useful scientific "stand-ins" for humans.

One cohort of test mice used a running wheel every day for a period of four weeks, averaging roughly 3 miles per day. Another group of mice did not have access to a running wheel. Each day half of the mice in both of those groups were then exposed to a simulated stressful situation such as swimming in some cold water or walking on an elevated platform. An hour after the stressful event had passed researchers performed brain scans on the rodents to measure LPT function.

Sure enough, the mice who had been running showed much more robust LPT after getting stressed out than the sedentary mice. Additionally, the exercising mice scored just as high as non-stressed mice on a maze-running memory assessment. The exercising mice also made far fewer memory mistakes while navigating the maze than the sedentary rodents.

Running Also Helps Learning and Memory

Portrait of young runners enjoying workout on the sea front path along the shoreline. Running club group running along a seaside promenade.

In summation, study authors believe running is a legitimate avenue toward preserving memory function and learning ability while in the midst of chronic stress.

"The ideal situation for improving learning and memory would be to experience no stress and to exercise," Professor Edwards comments. "Of course, we can't always control stress in our lives, but we can control how much we exercise. It's empowering to know that we can combat the negative impacts of stress on our brains just by getting out and running."

"Even though we will never be able to completely remove stress from our lives, it is nice to know that we can go out and do cardiovascular exercise for 20-minutes a day to help keep the stress from overwhelming our brains," concludes first study author Roxanne Miller, Ph.D. And for more reasons to get your stress under control, don't miss this list of Crazy Things Stress Does to Your Body, Says Top Experts.

John Anderer
John Anderer is a writer who specializes in science, health, and lifestyle topics. Read more about John
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