Why To Exercise Today: Overcoming Your (Genetic) Bad Attitude

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Over the years, I've been told I have a bad attitude, a glass-half-empty outlook on life. A friend long ago said I had a near-palpable dark cloud of anxiety hovering above me. I used to attribute it to various external factors — growing up in New York, for instance, or enduring my parents' hostile divorce. And those things may, quite possibly, play a role. But now I find genetics might also be a contributing factor, according to a new study out of British Columbia. The research, which works off the idea of our "emotionally enhanced" memories, found some people to be "genetically predisposed to see the world darkly."

From the news release:

The study, published in Psychological Science, finds that a previously known gene variant can cause individuals to perceive emotional events --especially negative ones – more vividly than others.

“This is the first study to find that this genetic variation can significantly affect how people see and experience the world,” says Prof. Rebecca Todd of University of British Columbia’s Dept. of Psychology. “The findings suggest people experience emotional aspects of the world partly through gene-coloured glasses – and that biological variations at the genetic level can play a significant role in individual differences in perception.”

The gene in question is the ADRA2b deletion variant, which influences the hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Previously found to play a role in the formation of emotional memories, the new study shows that the ADRA2b deletion variant also plays a role in real-time perception.

The study’s 200 participants were shown positive, negative and neutral words in a rapid succession. Participants with the ADRA2b gene variant were more likely to perceive negative words than others, while both groups perceived positive words better than neutral words to an equal degree.

“These individuals may be more likely to pick out angry faces in a crowd of people,” says Todd. “Outdoors, they might notice potential hazards – places you could slip, loose rocks that might fall – instead of seeing the natural beauty.”

But our genetics don't have to completely doom us. Personally, I've found that daily exercise can often strip away my gloomy filter.

Here's just one recent story, from Self magazine, on the mental and emotional benefits of exercise and what, exactly, is driving that familiar activity-induced mood boost:

People often throw around terms like "endorphin rush" or "runner's high" to explain the mood lift that can occur during or after a sweat session. But rather than a sudden burst of euphoria, research has found that a mere 20-minute workout can produce more subtle mood benefits that last as long as 12 hours. And when it comes to shorter bouts of activity, endorphins may actually have little to do with the mental perk-up. "When researchers blocked endorphins from runners' brains, some still said their mood improved after their workout," says John Ratey, M.D., author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

In part, the happiness effect may be due to endocannabinoids and BDNF; the latter may rise during exercise, prompting neural growth and repairing damage caused by ongoing stress and depression. "BDNF," Dr. Ratey says, "is like Miracle-Gro for your brain." When French researchers bred mice without cannabinoid receptors, the mice ran 30 to 40 percent less than normal mice, presumably because it wasn't as pleasurable for them.

I'm going out to run around the block now.

This program aired on October 10, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 




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