Fitness Tips

Why Taking It Easier During Exercise May Be Better for Your Brain, According to a Neuroscientist

Photo: Getty Images/Susuma Yoshioka
We often focus on the physical benefits of working out—improved heart health, stronger muscles, management of all kinds of health conditions. But there are powerful mental health benefits of exercise as well. For example, there is evidence to suggest that exercise can reduce stress, elevate your mood, and even improve your memory.

However, there’s also a chance that your workout is increasing your stress. According to research conducted by Jennifer Heisz, PhD, that she presents in her new book Move the Body, Heal the Mind, dialing things back and doing lower-intensity workouts like walking might actually be what the brain needs.

The benefits of low-intensity exercise

In recent years, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has garnered a groundswell of attention. The busier we get, the more appealing it is to have our workout time be as efficient as possible.

While HIIT and other high-intensity exercise like running can be beneficial, Dr. Heisz, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University, says that the physical stress of intense activity can be counterproductive for some people.

“To be clear, stress is not inherently bad. We need some stress in our lives to help us adapt and grow into a stronger version of ourselves,” she explains. “However, too much stress damages the body and mind. Research from my NeuroFit lab shows that chronic stress can lead to mental health issues in people who have never had a diagnosis before.”

Our bodies perceive all types of stress the same way, regardless of the origin or type of stress. Whether you are racing against a deadline at work, trying to come up with enough money to meet your bills, or pushing your body to its limits in an indoor cycling workout, your body’s stress response will be triggered.

Chronic activation of cortisol, a stress hormone, is not only fatiguing, but it can also increase weight gain, limit your ability to exercise as vigorously as you would like to, and lead to heart problems.

Dr. Heisz says people with anxiety are particularly prone to finding vigorous exercise intolerable. “People with anxiety sensitivity (which is literally the fear of fear itself) become afraid, often to the point of panic, when they experience the physical sensations brought on by anxiety, including a racing heart and shortness of breath,” she explains. “These physical sensations of anxiety are evoked by vigorous exercise and so many people with anxiety sensitivity often avoid intense exercise because they are afraid of how it makes them feel.”

"These physical sensations of anxiety are evoked by vigorous exercise." —Dr. Jennifer Heisz

In contrast, research from the NeuroFit lab suggests that 30 minutes of light-to-moderate exercise three times per week reduces anxiety, especially for people who are highly anxious. Moreover, just 10 minutes of light exercise can boost anyone’s mood, and those effects increase for every additional 10 minutes (up to one hour).

How does low-intensity exercise improve mental health?

No matter the current state of your mental health, there are a few potential mechanisms by which low- and moderate-intensity exercise can reduce anxiety and boost your mood.

  • It increases neuropeptide Y, which helps protect the brain from trauma.
  • It stimulates the production of endocannabinoids, the body’s natural cannabis, which activates the reward system to release dopamine (aka the “happy hormone”).
  • It increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which aids in the growth, function, and survival of brain cells, especially those in the hippocampus, a brain region that is largely responsible for stress regulation and memory.

How to maximize the mental health benefits of walking

Committed to making actionable advice from her research findings, Dr. Heisz shares some of her top tips to maximize the mental health benefits of walking or other low-intensity exercise:

1. Break up your sitting time

If you’re able, Dr. Heisz suggests taking a two-minute walking break after 30 minutes of sitting. “These short bursts of movement are enough to counteract the deleterious effects of prolonged sitting, which starves the brain of the vital nutrients it needs to thrive,” she explains.

2. Walk mindfully

To really reduce anxious thoughts, try to focus on connecting to your body while walking instead of ruminating on your anxious thoughts. Dr. Heisz says this helps create space between you and your negative thoughts. It also allows for your prefrontal cortex, the rational part of your brain, to soothe the anxious amygdala, the brain region generating your fears.

3. Intermittently pick up the pace

Although we are talking about relatively low-intensity exercise, your walk doesn’t need to be a gentle stroll. “Research from my NeuroFit lab shows that interval walking improves memory more than regular walking,” says Dr. Heisz. To reap the benefits, intersperse periods of brisk walking (“you’ll know you’re walking fast enough when it becomes too difficult to carry on a conversation,” she says) with a more relaxed pace.

4. End with a sprint

Dr. Heisz recommends doing a “Fear Buster Workout,” which is her term for adding a very short sprint (10 seconds or so) at the end of your walk. “It is like exposure therapy for people with anxiety sensitivity,” she notes. “It exposes them to the physical sensations of anxiety that they fear, but in a safe and controlled way with exercise.”

5. Aim for consistency

We often feel like there’s no point in exercising if we don’t have at least an hour or so, but Dr. Heisz says consistency is more important than length, and that every minute counts. See if you can commit to just 10 minutes a day to start. Make it a routine and try to get your walk in daily. Your body and brain will thank you.

Walking not for you? Try this low-intensity chair yoga for another brain-boosting workout: 

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