We all know we should exercise, eat healthily, get enough sleep and take regular breaks from the pc. And yet . . . the things we know we should do are the very things we don’t do when we are feeling pressured. The thing that goes first for many of us is exercise. The pull of meeting a deadline, clearing emails, or preparing for the next day is often stronger than the lure of an exercise class, a bike ride or a session in the gym. I am no different, even though I know that my head is clearer after I have worked up a sweat.
Now I know why that is – it’s all down to galanin. Never heard of it? Neither had I until I came across research by Professor Philip Holmes of the University of Georgia. Galanin is a neuropeptide. It may sound like a new wonder ingredient in anti-aging face creams, but it is more important than that. Galanin protects neurons. It helps them to fire up so that they can send signals to the pre-frontal cortex: the part of the brain responsible for complex cognitive functions like planning, decision-making, emotion regulation and stress resilience. His research has shown that when stressed galanin starts to degenerate. so that neurons are not able to work so effectively. In contrast when we exercise galanin is increased. In experimental work with rats the study found that those with higher levels of galanin were curious in finding ways around obstacles. They were resilient under pressure. Whilst sedentary rats with lower levels of galanin became anxious when faced by an obstacle and stayed put. Extrapolate that finding to humans and it suggests that sedentary working unbalanced by exercise reduces our mental capacities and increases our stress levels.
You may exercise because you want muscle, tone or flexibility, but all of those desires can be put on hold when under pressure. What you can’t put on hold is your need for galanin. It is when you feel you have the least time to exercise that you need it most. So no excuses. When the choice is between staying on to cope with your workload, knowing you will go home tired as a result or leaving to do some form of exercise, remember that with a galanin enhanced brain, you will cope a whole lot better the next day.