Unwanted childhood experiences, exercise and the brain


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We have known for many years that regular exercise improves depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, difficulty sleeping, fatigue and other symptoms related to stress. Exercise is thus particularly beneficial for survivors of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), who often struggle with symptoms of this kind.

In recent years, we have learned how exercise strengthens the brain and prepares it for pacing – to form new nerve pathways that will overwrite the disturbing nerve pathways that form in the early years in response to ACEs and keep the brain high. emergency preparedness.

Master molecules

Exercise increases the master molecules in the brain, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Without exercise, these molecules tend to decrease with stress and aging. The master molecules together:

  • Increase brain volume, especially in key areas involved in learning, memory and cognitive function. This is achieved by neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons to replace those destroyed by stress and aging), the growth of new capillaries that nourish the brain, and the growth of tissues that support the neurons.
  • Improve the health and function of neurons, including the ability of neurons to connect with adjacent neurons and form new neural pathways. This probably explains why exercise improves cognitive function – the ability to concentrate, learn, remember, reason, think fast and shift focus from one situation to another.
  • Increase the level of antioxidants. Antioxidants limit damage to neurons caused by oxidative stress – and thus keep neurons alive longer.

Irisin is a newly discovered hormone found in humans and animals. Irisin is produced during training of the muscles and possibly the brain. In animal studies, Harvard researchers found that irisin appears to increase neurogenesis, reduce inflammation, and keep brain cells healthy and functioning.


Chronic, low-grade inflammation affects millions of Americans and is associated with brain damage, cognitive decline, depression, and many of the leading causes of death (such as heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes). The immune system usually mobilizes when it detects invading bacteria, toxins or tissue damage. For unknown reasons, however, the immune system can remain on high alert and begin to attack the body’s healthy tissues, including the brain.

Signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation include sleep disturbances, fatigue, depression, anxiety, sore muscles and joints, gastrointestinal upset, headaches and brain fog. Notice the overlap between these symptoms and stress-related mental disorders.

Neuroinflammation (inflammation of the brain or spinal cord) can also suppress neurogenesis. In addition, neuroinflammation appears to promote the growth of the toxic proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise appears to reduce encephalitis and these harmful proteins, which is probably why several studies link exercise with minor dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Obesity is a risk factor for inflammation, as fat cells produce pro-inflammatory chemicals. What is an important tool to fight obesity? Regular exercise!

Stress regulation

As discussed in a previous post, one of the problems with unresolved trauma is that stress arousal can get stuck at too high or too low. In these extreme states, where the overriding urge is to fight or flee, key areas of the brain go offline – such as the areas associated with clear thinking, rational speech, and feeling connected to oneself, emotions, and one’s body.

Exercise helps return the arousal to the elastic zone, where it is neither too high nor too low, and all areas of the brain work together again. This is achieved either by using the energy for high arousal or by reversing the immobilization of low arousal. Regulation of arousal levels in these ways not only favors optimal mood and function in the present, but also prepares the brain for later treatment and settlement of disturbing memories from childhood. In addition, exercise regulates the stress hormones suspected of promoting chronic, low-grade inflammation.

Small changes

Experts consider exercise to be the best established way to increase neurogenesis and an excellent way to increase overall well-being. Fortunately, small changes can reap great benefits in just weeks or months. In a well-designed study, sedentary adults with mild cognitive impairment began exercising aerobically three times a week and following a healthy diet. After six months, the subjects showed a nine-year reversal of brain aging. Studies also show that people in their nineties can increase muscle strength a lot in just two months.

Unwanted childhood experiences essential readings

    Yuroslav Shuraev / Pexels

Source: Yuroslav Shuraev / Pexels

Guidelines for training

  1. Start gently and work gradually up to at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking, cycling, or swimming. This could, for example, be about 30 minutes a day five days a week. Or you can divide your total daily training time into shorter matches, e.g. three 10-minute matches a day.
  2. To your aerobic base you can add strength and agility training to increase the benefits of training. Strength training can involve resistance bands, free weights, strength training machines or moving your body weight (push-ups, pull-ups or exercises that develop core muscles that help you bend and twist). Strength training is recommended two to three times a week on non-consecutive days. Gradually build up to two to four sets of about 10 repetitions per. set.
  3. Do not overlook yoga and tai chi, which help reduce the stress associated with neuroinflammation.
  4. Try outdoor exercise in the morning. Sunlight raises the level of vitamin D, which improves brain function in many ways. About 20 minutes of sunlight is usually safe and sufficient to produce significant amounts of vitamin D. Morning exercise in the sun also strengthens sleep cycles and improves sleep. In addition, morning exercisers are more likely to stick to their exercise regimens.
  5. Complex motor movements, such as dancing, racket playing, juggling, or playing an instrument, establish useful neural pathways.

To be safe, of course, you should consult your doctor before embarking on an exercise program.

High-intensity interval training

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) provides benefits similar to moderate-intensity training, but in about half the time. This makes HIIT appealing to people on the go.

HIIT alternates between short bursts of high intensity with recovery intervals. The high-intensity intervals typically last 30 seconds to three minutes, followed by longer recovery intervals of moderate intensity. High intensity means that the heart rate is increased to at least 70 percent of one’s maximum heart rate (calculated by subtracting one’s age from 220 and multiplying this number by 0.7 or slightly higher).

There are different variations. A successful protocol with older adults simply alternated slow walking with fast walking, for three minutes each, for at least 30 minutes, most days of the week.

HIIT can be performed in the water, on a treadmill or on a stationary bike. Start slowly – maybe 15 seconds or less of high-intensity bursts alternating with recovery periods of at least 30 seconds.

Do no more than two or three HIIT sessions per week, giving two days for recovery between HIIT workouts. On the other days, do activities with low or moderate intensity.


At some point in the future, you might want to explore ways to remedy worrying old nerve pathways and replace them with positive, uplifting paths. So far, exercise can optimize your mood and your ability to cope with stress in the moment while you prepare your brain to maximize the potential for neuroplasticity.

Exercise is definitely essential for good mental health and a healthy brain. Aim for a satisfying training plan that you can stick to for many years to come.

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