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How Does Exercise Calm and Stimulate at the Same Time?

How Does Exercise Calm and Stimulate at the Same Time?

Fit brainWhile there is no mistake that exercise is good for our health, it is easy to get confused about whether it is a stimulant or a relaxant. We tell clients not to exercise too close to bedtime because it could cause them to have a harder time falling asleep, yet those who have exercised earlier in the day are more likely to have sweet dreams. Scientists have long tried to explain how exercise can boost our metabolism and generate new excitable brain cells on the one hand, yet leave us feeling more calm at the same time.

Understanding how this double reaction works can come in handy for us wellness professionals. New research indicates two possible reasons for it:

  1. The stimulation from exercise helps us feel more self-confident, so many causes of anxiety don’t bother us as much.
  2. Exercise leads to the creation of new neurons that specifically release the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA keeps other neurons from firing too easily. So these GABA-producing neurons essentially act on other excitable neurons like a calming mother on her infant having colics, keeping anxiety levels down.

This improved stress response is not the same as the post-exercise glow we feel after a good workout. It reflects a fundamental remodeling of the brain.

Says Elizabeth Gould, Director of the Gould Lab at Princeton University, “I think it’s not a huge stretch to suggest that the hippocampi of active people might be less susceptible to certain undesirable aspects of stress than those of sedentary people.”

Her original studies were conducted on mice, and all the results were published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Read the abstract here. For a more accessible summary you can easily pass on to peers and clients, see this NY Times article.

MJ Shaar – in 20 seconds


MJ is one of the most sought-after experts blending positive psychology and health promotion. She spent over 15 years coaching, teaching, speaking, researching and testing smart health habits. Marie-Josée Shaar received her undergrad at McGill University in Organizational Behavior, followed by a Master of Applied Positive Psychology at University of Pennsylvania. She's certified as a Wellness Culture Coach, a Personal Trainer, and a Nutrition and Wellness Consultant.

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