Pain, Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Concentration What Do They Have in Common?

By Dee Emmerson, TCC Writer

What do pain, stress, anxiety, depression, and concentration have in common?

  • Me
  • Car accident
  • Medical diagnosis
  • Exercise

Anxiety, depression, or a lack of concentration makes life more challenging. Yet people who live with chronic pain often experience all three…every day. Think how much more rewarding life could be if all these conditions, plus chronic pain, could be reduced—even eliminated—by ONE THING.

That one thing is EXERCISE. Science and thousands of people make it increasingly apparent that aerobic exercise can improve more than our physical shape. Exercise may be your brain's best medicine. According to John Ratey, Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry and author, exercise has nine benefits that slow and improve the aging process (and might we add...reduce pain?).

Aerobic exercise:

Strengthens the cardiovascular system. A strong heart and lungs reduce resting blood pressure. During exercise muscles release growth factors that promote neurogenesis and expanded vascular networks.  Blood vessels expand and blood flow increases.  

Regulates fuel. It increases levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) which regulates insulin and improves brain function. 

Reduces obesity. The physical chaos caused by obesity doesn’t just affect the cardiovascular and metabolic systems.  It increases the chances of developing dementia.  Exercise burns calories and reduces appetite—a two-for-one benefit.

Elevates our stress threshold by making proteins that fix the damage of too much cortisol, excess glucose, free radicals, and over-dominance of the nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. Ultimately, exercise delays the aging process.

Lifts your mood. Being mobile allows us to stay involved, keep up, make and keep friends.  And social connections are key to avoiding depression.  But more than that, exercise sets a body-mind sequence into action that ensures the release of neurotransmitters—the body’s very own “happy pills.”

Boosts the immune system. While stress and age depress the immune response, exercise strengthens it. Even moderate activity rallies antibodies and lymphocytes (T cells)—the immune system fighters. Prevention is a huge task for the immune system; repair is, too, when tissue is damaged or inflammation sets in.  Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and Alzheimers. Exercise allows the immune system to fix inflammation and fight disease.

Fortifies the bones. Osteoporosis can cause pain when bones break and the body’s foundation weakens. While walking aids prevention, weight training or a sport that involves running or jumping will counteract the natural loss of bone mass. Science shows that any form of exercise or strength training that stresses the bones is essential to maintaining bone health. Add calcium and vitamin D to the mix, and you will be doing your bones a big favor (Dr. Ratey suggests ten minutes of morning sun each day for the vitamin D.) How about lifting those weights on the sunny side of the patio?

Boosts motivation. Dopamine is a natural feel-good neurotransmitter released in response to heart-thumping exercise. Any activity that has a competitive component and requires some planning—golf, tennis, hiking, team sports—will strengthen the connections between dopamine neurons and keep us from becoming sedentary and solitary.

Fosters neuroplasticity. “The best way to guard against neurodegenerative diseases is to build a strong brain,” says Ratey. “Aerobic exercise accomplishes this by strengthening connections between your brain cells, creating more synapses to expand the web of connections, and spurring newly born stem cells to divide and become functional neurons in the hippocampus. Moving the body keeps the brain growing by elevating the supply of neurotrophic factors necessary for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, which would otherwise naturally diminish with age. Contracting your muscles releases factors such as VEGF, FGF-2, and IGF-1 that make their way from the body into the brain and aid in the process. All these structural changes improve your brain’s ability to learn and remember, execute higher thought processes, and manage your emotions. The more robust the connections, the better prepared your brain will be to handle any damage it might experience.”