Good news for the exercise-averse: To get the mood-boosting effects of working out, you don’t have to be a gym rat. When it comes to exercise and emotional health, a little may go a long way, researchers say.
Tara Parker-Pope at the New York Times’ Well blog describes a recent study done by the National Institute of Mental Health in which smaller mice were allowed to be bullied by bigger mice for two weeks, thereby developing an anxiety complex (apparently, mice laboratories are like junior high). But a subgroup of the nerd mice, despite receiving the same intimidation from the big mice as the rest, exhibited no anxiety effects. “These mice, although wisely submissive when confronted by the bullies, rallied nicely when away from them,” Parker-Pope writes. “They didn’t freeze or cling to dark spaces in unfamiliar situations. They explored. They appeared to be … ‘stress-resistant.’”
What made this group of mice so different? Recess!, if we’re gonna extend this terrible junior high analogy I’ve got going on. These mice had been given access to running wheels and all kinds of neat tubes to explore for several weeks before the study started. When researchers checked out their little mice brains, they saw that certain neurons in an area of the brain involved in emotional processing had been firing like crazy for weeks, as had neurons in other parts of the brain such as the fear-controlling amygdala.
Lead researcher Michael L. Lehmann said he believed the running was key to these mice’s ability to bounce back from their unpleasant housing conditions (is that why so many people in Manhattan take up jogging?). What’s more, he believes “this particular experiment is a fair representation of human interpersonal relations” and “does not believe that hours of daily exercise are needed or desirable to achieve emotional resilience. The mice in his lab ran only when and for as long as they wished, over the course of several weeks.”
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