In her latest book, Jennifer Heisz combines her personal experiences as well as the latest research about the benefits of exercise for your mental health.
Jennifer Heisz was at her final year of graduate studies, Jennifer Heisz took over the rusty, old friend’s road bike, and ended up reorienting her career. At the time she was studying cognitive neuroscience. But, unhappy with the direction her career and private life, she began to experience what she now describes as “pretty extreme anxiety,” she shared with me recently. Her friend suggested that she bike to relieve stress. Never a fan of sports she started biking with enthusiasm and said the activity “soothed my soul,” she said.
This discovery prompted her to shift the focus of her studies. As as Director of the NeuroFit Lab at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario she examines the interaction between physical and emotional health , and the ways exercise can help prevent or treat anxiety, depression and stress, among other mental health disorders.
“The effects of movement on the mind are so prevalent and amazing,” said Dr. Heisz.
The idea of this is what drives her new work, “Move the Body, Restore your Mind,” which details the most recent research on exercising and mental health as well as her personal journey from being inactive and suffering from frequent emotional depression to training for triathlons and a greater sense of peace. Recently, I sat down with Dr. Heisz to talk about her book and what it could reveal about mental well-being and the benefits of gentle exercises, the stresses of the epidemic years and how to select the most appropriate exercise routine right now to boost your mood. The edited interview is below.
Are we able to discuss anxiety and exercise? we all feel in these times?
JH: Exercise can be extremely effective in the reduction of anxiety. When you finish a exercise routine it is common to experience an instant relief from anxiety due to neuropeptide Y that increases during exercising. It’s a resiliency component. It soothes the amygdala that is anxious, which is the brain part which detects dangers and keeps the brain on high alert. Since the last few years, in the wake of the spread of the disease, our amygdala is on high alert which has triggered an almost continuous stress response. The constant stress response begins to make our minds nervous and eventually you end feeling constantly anxious. Exercise, through the up-regulation of neuropeptide Y, can help calm the amygdala that is anxious, and dials down the hyper-vigilance and fear and helps us stay calmer.
Is there a particular kind that you do?
JH: The best aspect is that light moderate to moderate exercise, such as walking, is sufficient. My lab’s research shows that the kind of exercise that reduces anxiety as soon as you finish your exercise, and over period of time, when you continue working out, reduces anxiety more and over a longer time. It’s estimated that 30 minutes of exercise three times per week is sufficient. Swimming, cycling, walking dancing — vast array of sports can be done.
What is it about workouts that are more intense?
JH: It is important to be aware of high intensity exercise and stress. If you’re feeling anxious then you’re probably already stressed. Exercise that is intense can be one of the ways to stress. However, our bodies havein general just one type of stress reaction. When you are exercising for a long time it is possible to add physical strain to what your body is experiencing and it can turn into a lot. Before the pandemic started I was preparing for a triathlon and performing lots of intense exercises. However, once the disease began to spread, I felt overwhelmed with emotional stress that I could not complete my training sessions. Then, I decided to stop. The thing I’d like to tell people is that if you’re already exhausted exercising for long periods of time might not be the best choice.
What would you suggest to people instead?
JH: Try to do exercise that is comfortable and challenging and your heart rate rises however it is not racing. For many it’s strolls around the park or around the block.
Does exercise aid in the same way against depression?
JH: Traditionally depression is blamed on the deficiency of serotonin in the brain, which antidepressants treat. For some individuals with depression, antidepressants don’t perform effectively, likely because serotonin isn’t their issue. A lot of us who study depression are now thinking that their issue might be related toinvolve inflammation that is linked to stress. The inflammation begins to harm cells within the body, leading to an immune response, and increasing inflammation. This can enter the brain and affect mood. For these people who are suffering from depression, exercise could be the remedy they require as it aids in fighting inflammation. When people who aren’t responding to antidepressants begin exercising, they typically experience significant decreases in the symptoms they experience.
What amount of exercise are we discussing?
JH: One study focused on frequency, or the amount of exercise you should do to fight depression, was compared to the 150-minute moderate or vigorous exercise per week as the usual fitness recommendation for health and fitness, but with one quarter of that. Both groups benefitted exactly the same. This suggests that the prescribed exercise to improve mental wellbeing is lower than the one for physical health and that’s good.
As far as aiding in the fight against Depression, do you believe that the intensity of exercise is important?
JH: It may. We conducted a study couple of years ago, with healthy students who had to take stressful exam results. A few of them rode stationary bikes for at a moderate pace three times per each week over 30 minutes, while others took shorter, more intense interval cycling. Another group did not exercise for any time at all. In the course of six weeks students who had not exercised displayed signs of severe depression that came suddenly probably due to the stress of their studies. Students who were exercising moderately were less stressed than they were at the beginning of the study. Also, the levels of inflammation in their bodies were less. However, what’s intriguing to me is the fact that those who were intensely exercising had signs of stress both mentally and physically. Therefore, it appears like moderate exercise might be beneficial to mental well-being.
You openly discuss in your book about personal experiences with stress, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder even following having your child and after divorce, you went through a difficult time. Did exercise help you cope?
JH: That’s the most important thing. Mental illness can strike any person, even those who seem to manage things with ease. For me and a lot of others, life changes such as divorce or childbirth are often difficult. Following my separation, I wanted to find a way to change my life. I was aware of how exercise, as a stimulant can alter the brain. One of my friends talked about triathlons. I was biking at the time. Therefore, I also added swimming and running.
and qualified for World Championships ?
JH: Eventually, yes. It took many years. Then , the championships were delayed due to the pandemic, and now I’m in a bad way and must start training over to start all over. However, that’s something I’m looking toward, actually. The thing I’ve noticed is that in these difficult times it is possible to find comfort in exercising. In the calm moments following an exercise, the hope comes alive. It’s like everything is at peace. It’s truly special.