The Science Behind the Brain and Physical Activity

Team Unbreakable’s first annual Train the Trainer featured a host of fascinating topics and speakers. One of these speakers was Jennifer Lepock, a PhD Candidate in Neuroscience from the University of Toronto. Jennifer spoke on the current research underpinning exercise and mental health, along with her experience using running to help treat her mood disorder.

Jennifer started running in 2013. She used the sport to help stabilize her mood and ease the symptoms of her new medication. Her personal experience would go on to dovetail with her academic and professional pursuits.

Studies have shown that physical activity can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improve feelings of esteem and boost brain functioning in adolescents. “Higher levels of fitness benefit the brain structure and students feel better. This helps them with their school and social relationships,” Jennifer said.

But what is the actual neurochemistry behind physical activity?

Jennifer explained to the group that running triggers neurotransmitters that send chemical messages between the neurons.  Serotonin is increased when we run, which helps to regulate mood.

Studies have shown that running at least 30 minutes, three times a week can help people better deal with stress, improve the ability to focus and help treat more chronic issues related to psychosis, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s, Jenny said.  Elevated dopamine levels contribute to these results.

And there are additional benefits related to other brain chemicals

Jennifer said that after 30 minutes of running, many people experience a ‘runners high’ that will make them feel better and block pain.  Cortisol levels are higher, and more oxygen is getting to the brain resulting in more adrenaline in the body including the hormone epinephrine. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone that help us fight off illness or infections, Jenny added. This “natural high” likens the effect of cannabis.

Jennifer is her last year of the Doctorate Degree. She has volunteered with Team Unbreakable since 2016. The focus of her work is early onset psychosis and schizophrenia in youth populations.

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