People who exercise have better mental fitness, and a new imaging study from UC Davis Health System shows why. Intense exercise increases levels of two common neurotransmitters — glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA — that are responsible for chemical messaging within the brain.
Published in this week’s issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, the finding offers new insights into brain metabolism and why exercise could become an important part of treating depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders linked with deficiencies in neurotransmitters, which drive communications between the brain cells that regulate physical and emotional health.
“Major depressive disorder is often characterized by depleted glutamate and GABA, which return to normal when mental health is restored,” said study lead author Richard Maddock, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “Our study shows that exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters.”
The research also helps solve a persistent question about the brain, an energy-intensive organ that consumes a lot of fuel in the form of glucose and other carbohydrates during exercise. What does it do with that extra fuel?
“From a metabolic standpoint, vigorous exercise is the most demanding activity the brain encounters, much more intense than calculus or chess, but nobody knows what happens with all that energy,” Maddock said. “Apparently, one of the things it’s doing is making more neurotransmitters.”
The striking change in how the brain uses fuel during exercise has largely been overlooked in brain health research. While the new findings account for a small part of the brain’s energy consumption during exercise, they are an important step toward understanding the complexity of brain metabolism. The research also hints at the negative impact sedentary lifestyles might have on brain function, along with the role the brain might play in athletic endurance.
“It is not clear what causes people to ‘hit the wall’ or get suddenly fatigued when exercising,” Maddock said. “We often think of this point in terms of muscles being depleted of oxygen and energy molecules. But part of it may be that the brain has reached its limit.”
To understand how exercise affects the brain, the team studied 38 healthy volunteers. Participants exercised on a stationary bicycle, reaching around 85 percent of their predicted maximum heart rate. To measure glutamate and GABA, the researchers conducted a series of imaging studies using a powerful 3-tesla MRI to detect nuclear magnetic resonance spectra, which can identify several compounds based on the magnetic behavior of hydrogen atoms in molecules.
The researchers measured GABA and glutamate levels in two different parts of the brain immediately before and after three vigorous exercise sessions lasting between eight and 20 minutes, and made similar measurements for a control group that did not exercise. Glutamate or GABA levels increased in the participants who exercised, but not among the non-exercisers. Significant increases were found in the visual cortex, which processes visual information, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps regulate heart rate, some cognitive functions and emotion. While these gains trailed off over time, there was some evidence of longer-lasting effects.
“There was a correlation between the resting levels of glutamate in the brain and how much people exercised during the preceding week,” Maddock said. “It’s preliminary information, but it’s very encouraging.”
These findings point to the possibility that exercise could be used as an alternative therapy for depression. This could be especially important for patients under age 25, who sometimes have more side effects from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), anti-depressant medications that adjust neurotransmitter levels.
For follow-up studies, Maddock and the team hope to test whether a less-intense activity, such as walking, offers similar brain benefits. They would also like to use their exercise-plus-imaging method on a study of patients with depression to determine the types of exercise that offer the greatest benefit.
“We are offering another view on why regular physical activity may be important to prevent or treat depression,” Maddock said. “Not every depressed person who exercises will improve, but many will. It’s possible that we can help identify the patients who would most benefit from an exercise prescription.”
Foot Pain OUCH!
You leap out of bed in the morning and you get stabbing pains in your heels or the arches of your feet. You hobble a few steps, and then hobble a few more until the pain reduces. Most of the day your feet feel OK …except when you tackle stairs or when you have been sitting for a while when the pain makes a reappearance.
Pain in your heel or the bottom of your foot is most commonly caused by Plantar Fasciitis. Your Plantar Fascia is the ligament that goes from the underneath of your heel to your toes. If you strain it, micro tears can form, which leads to swelling and sharp pain.
While most people experience the pain in their heel, some also get pain through to the arch of their foot. In about 70% of cases, the pain is in both feet, making walking a very painful experience.
You most commonly notice the pain first thing in the morning when you get out of bed and it reduces as your feet warm up with movement. It can reappear during the day after periods of rest or sitting, if you have been standing for a while, or when climbing stairs or ladders.
Plantar Fasciitis is more common in middle-aged people, although it can also affect younger people who use their feet a lot like joggers, dancers, or soldiers. That’s why it is also often called Joggers Heel.
Causes of Plantar Fasciitis
While the actual causes of plantar fasciitis are not known, there are risk factors that will increase the likelihood of you getting plantar fasciitis.
Overuse – excessive running, walking or dancing, or changing your training pattern so you dramatically increase hill running (for example).
Standing on hard surfaces
Flat feet or high foot arches (this is one time when average is better!)
Tight Achilles tendons or calf muscles
Your feet roll in when you walk or run
Ill-fitting shoes, worn out or unsupportive footwear such as thongs/slides
Walking barefoot on hard surfaces
First aid for Plantar Fasciitis
Generally, plantar fasciitis is gradual onset, which means it gradually increases in severity over time. If you ignore it and try to run through the pain, then the symptoms can get worse, ultimately leading to you changing your gait, limiting your activity or triggering the growth of heel spurs.
For initial symptoms, you need to rest, apply ice packs (15 minutes at a time every 2-3 hours), and take anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen.
You don’t need a referral from a doctor to see a physiotherapist. If the pain is moderate then you can seek treatment with your Physiotherapist immediately as the sooner you begin treatment, the sooner you will experience relief.
Occasionally your plantar fascia can snap and you could hear a clicking or snapping sound, accompanied by swelling, intense pain and significant swelling. You need to see a doctor urgently if this occurs.
Physiotherapy & Treatment Options
Your physiotherapist will assess the extent of your injury, and will explore the causes of your injury.
Depending on your symptoms, you may have the soles of your feet taped or strapped to support your feet and reduce pain. You may also need to wear a plantar fasciitis brace or heel cups in the initial stages of healing.
Your physiotherapist will take you through a number of gentle stretching exercises for your feet, as well as exercises to address any tight Achilles tendons or calf muscles.
We will combine these with pain reduction techniques that you can do at home such as rolling your foot on a frozen water bottle or frozen golf ball to help ice your injury site.
Massage, joint mobilisation techniques, dry needling and ultrasound therapy will also be used to reduce swelling and restore movement.
For your footwear, we recommend you replace your joggers every 650km of use, and only wear shoes that support your feet while healing. Definitely no thongs or slides!
It also helps to put your shoes on first thing in the morning, before you take your first steps. Avoid barefoot walking on tiles or hard surfaces while you heal.
If the cause of your injury is your feet shape or foot pronation, you may need special orthotics. If this is indicated, we would conduct a walk/run assessment on you and have your technique analysed.
To maintain your fitness during your treatment, we recommend swimming and cycling. Don’t return to running until you have been pain free for at least one week, and then only run on soft surfaces until you rebuild your strength and stamina. If pain is felt at any time, then go back to swimming and cycling rather than running.
Unfortunately, Plantar Fasciitis is a long-term injury, and may take a number of months to fully heal even with the most aggressive treatments.
Things to Remember
Plantar Fasciitis is the most common cause of heel and arch pain, and is caused by micro tears to the plantar fascia.
It is a gradual onset injury and causes sharp pain when taking the first few steps in the morning or after rest.
Physiotherapy can treat plantar fasciitis, while reducing pain and increasing movement during healing.
Your physiotherapist may advise you of techniques for the improvement of your walk/running style, or provide you with solutions for arch support, to help prevent further reoccurrence.
Healing may take many months for full recovery.
If you want to steer clear of lower back pain, remember this: Arch is good, flat is bad.
Back pain is anything but rare; only headaches and colds are more common. According to the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, Americans spend more than $50 billion each year on lower back pain, which is the No. 1 cause of job-related disability in the country and one of the leading contributors to missed time from work.
There’s acute lower back pain, sometimes intense but generally short-lived discomfort resulting from injury to the lower back incurred during sustained physical activity (playing sports, doing yard work) or by a sudden jolt (being in a vehicle collision). But it’s chronic lower back pain, the kind that lasts for more than three months, that is more debilitating and more difficult to treat.
Much of that chronic pain is caused by damage to the discs — the spongy, multi-function structures that lie between the spine’s vertebrae — in the lower part of the back right above the pelvis known as the lumbar region. And much of that damage is caused by poor body mechanics — the way people stand, walk, lift, carry, reach, bend, sit and sleep — in which the back is too often flat, not arched.
“The key to avoiding lower back pain is keeping pressure off your lower lumbar discs,” said Tadhg O’Gara, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. “That means keeping an arch to your lower back.”
The intervertebral discs, essentially the spine’s shock absorbers, are under constant pressure, especially in the lower back, which supports the weight of the upper body. The five vertebrae in the lumbar region are naturally arched toward the front of the body, so bending forward compresses the front of these disks, which over time can force them out of position to press on one or more of the nerves emanating from the spinal cord. This condition — known as a bulging, herniated or ruptured disc — can cause pain in the lower back and elsewhere, especially the buttocks, thighs and even below the knee (sciatica). And that pain can be severe.
“People who haven’t had lower back pain don’t re alize how painful it is,” O’Gara said. “And many health care providers don’t realize how painful it is.”
So how is chronic lower back pain treated?
“The first thing to figure out is what exactly is causing the pain, because that determines what approach to take with treatment,” said Kristopher Karvelas, M.D., assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Wake Forest Baptist. “That’s not always easy. Pain is usually related to the discs, but other causes of low back pain have overlapping symptoms and pain patterns.”
Basic diagnostic methods include physical examination, review of the patient’s medical history and patient descriptions of the onset, location, severity and duration of the pain and of any limitations in movement. Imaging techniques such as X-rays, MRI and CT scans also can be employed to pinpoint the source of pain.
Once the reason behind the pain is determined, the most frequently prescribed treatment is physical therapy, not surgery.
“I typically reserve surgery for patients who have a medical need other than pain,” Karvelas said. “There’s a large toolbox that we can go to for patients, and surgery is the last tool.”
Depending on the individual patient’s condition, physical therapy programs usually include exercises designed to strengthen back and abdominal muscles and to promote proper posture and balance. These can include stretching, swimming, walking and even yoga. But education also is a key element.
“Patients need to recognize that posture and activity are crucial in relieving and preventing back pain,” Karvelas said. “They need to learn what exercises to do on their own and how to do them properly to prevent future flare-ups.
“We can help resolve acute back pain episodes, but when we are talking about chronic back pain, the pain may never resolve completely. However, we do use a team approach to treat patients and teach people how to cope with their pain effectively.
Elite and competitive swimmers log between 60,000 and 80,000 meters weekly — swimming the length of an Olympic-sized pool 1,200 times — which places significant stress on their shoulder joints. “The upper body provides 90 percent of the propulsive force to move through the water. Due to the amount of force generated and the range of motion required to swim efficiently, the shoulder needs to have perfect mechanics to avoid injury,” says Dr. Elizabeth Matzkin, lead study author of a literature review in the August issue of Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Harvard Medical School.
Swimming is an endurance sport but “swimmer’s shoulder” — a broad non-medical term often used to describe a variety of shoulder injuries — can affect swimmers at all levels. According to the literature review authors, many shoulder injuries are preventable with proper technique, training, stretching, and strengthening.
Shoulder pain affects 40 to 91 percent of competitive swimmers. Overuse and poor shoulder mechanics can cause muscle imbalances, decreased range of motion of the shoulder, and less efficient swim strokes, all placing athletes at greater risk for further injury. The most common swimming-related injuries include:
Impingement — As swimmers becomes fatigued, the pectoralis muscles (commonly known as “pecs”) compensate for tired muscles, which can cause the peak of the shoulder blade to rub (impinge) against the rotator cuff (tendon and bursa), stress the anterior (front of the body) ligaments, and create tears in the tissue that holds the top of the arm bone in place.
Scapular dyskinesis — Intense, repetitive rotation of the shoulder blade over the chest wall can overstretch and loosen the upper back muscles that keep the shoulder bones in a healthy position. Abnormal shoulder mechanics (scapula dyskinesis) can cause pain near the collarbone when the upper chest muscles tighten to compensate for the loosened upper back muscles.
Glenohumeral internal rotation deficit (GIRD) — Intense, repetitive rotation of the shoulder blade can cause the front shoulder ligaments to overstretch and loosen. This can cause the soft tissues and muscles in the back to tighten to compensate for the loosened front shoulder muscles while limiting the internal rotation of the shoulders, which puts swimmers at greater risk for rotator cuff tears. Swimmers must maintain some shoulder looseness to remain competitive. However, about 20 percent of competitive swimmers have hyperlaxity — the ability of joints to move beyond the normal range of motion — which increases the likelihood of greater shoulder instability and susceptibility to pain.
Possible and often subtle signs of shoulder injuries among swimmers may include:
A dropped elbow during the recovery phase of the freestyle stroke.
Excessive body roll, which may signify shoulder pain.
Drooping of the affected shoulder.
“Injury prevention is best accomplished by proper training. Most importantly, swimmers need to stretch, especially the posterior shoulder capsule, and avoid muscle imbalance by strengthening both the rotator cuff and the scapular stabilizer muscle groups,” says Dr. Matzkin. When a swimmer experiences shoulder pain, a thorough physical examination is important to diagnose the source of the pain, whether there is atrophy in the shoulder or reduced strength in the shoulder joint.
Treatment may include nonsurgical (e.g., a combination of ice, stretching, and anti-inflammatory medication, focused rehabilitation to reduce pain) or surgical (e.g., for structural injuries to manage pain rather than to enhance athletic performance) options to potentially prevent future injuries.
Elizabeth Matzkin, Kaytelin Suslavich, David Wes. Swimmer’s Shoulder. Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2016; 24 (8): 527 DOI: 10.5435/JAAOS-D-15-00313