Adverse 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, insomnia, fatigue, and other stress-related symptoms. Therefore, exercise is particularly beneficial for survivors of negative childhood experiences (ACEs) who frequently struggle with such symptoms.

In recent years we’ve learned how exercise strengthens the brain and prepares it to rewire – to create new neural pathways that override the stressful neural pathways that were formed in response to ACE in the early years and the brain into hold high alert.

Master molecules

Exercise increases the number of major molecules in the brain, such as the 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 related to learning, memory, and cognitive functions. This is achieved through Neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons to replace those destroyed by stress and aging), the growth of new capillaries to feed the brain, and the growth of tissue to support the neurons.
  • Improve neuron health and function, including neurons’ ability to connect with neighboring neurons and form new neural pathways. This probably explains why exercise improves cognitive functions – the ability to concentrate, learn, remember, reason, think quickly, and shift focus from one situation to another.
  • Increase the level of antioxidants. Antioxidants limit damage to neurons caused by oxidative stress, keeping neurons alive longer.

Irisin is a recently discovered hormone found in humans and animals. Irisin is produced by the muscles and possibly the brain during exercise. In animal studies, Harvard researchers found that irisin appears to increase neurogenesis, decrease inflammation, and keep brain cells healthy and functional.


Chronic, mild inflammation affects millions of Americans and is linked to brain damage, cognitive decline, depression, and many of the leading causes of death (including heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes). The immune system normally mobilizes when it detects invading germs, toxins or tissue damage. However, for reasons unknown, the immune system may stay on high alert and begin attacking the body’s healthy tissues, including the brain.

Signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation include sleep disorders, fatigue, depression, anxiety, muscle and joint pain, gastrointestinal complaints, headaches and brain fog. Note the overlap between these symptoms and stress-related mental disorders.

Neuroinflammation (inflammation in 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 brain inflammation and these harmful proteins, which is probably why numerous studies have linked exercise with less dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Obesity is a risk factor for inflammation because fat cells produce chemicals that promote inflammation. What is an Important Tool to Combat Obesity? Regular training!

Stress regulation

As discussed in a previous post, one of the problems with unresolved trauma is that stress arousal can stay too high or too low. In these extreme states, where the overwhelming urge to fight or to flee is, important areas of the brain go offline – such as the areas associated with clear thinking, rational language and feeling, with yourself, emotions and your own body to be connected.

Exercise helps bring arousal back to the zone of resilience, where it is neither too high nor too low and all brain regions work together again. This is accomplished either by expending the energy of high arousal or by reversing the immobilization of low arousal. The regulation of the arousal level in this way not only favors an optimal mood and function in the present, but also prepares the brain for the later processing and clearing up of disturbing childhood memories. In addition, exercise regulates the stress hormones that are suspected of promoting chronic, low-grade inflammation.

Small changes

Experts consider exercise to be the most well-established method of increasing neurogenesis and a great way to increase overall wellbeing. Fortunately, small changes can be big benefits in just weeks or months. In one well-designed study, sedentary adults with mild cognitive impairment began aerobically exercising and eating healthy three times a week. 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 significantly in just two months.

Unwanted Childhood Experiences – Basic Reading

    Yuroslav Shuraev / Pexels

Source: Yuroslav Shuraev / Pexels

Exercise guidelines

  1. Start gently and gradually work your way up to at least 150 minutes per week with moderately intense aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling, or swimming. For example, this could be around 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Or, you can break up all of your daily training time into shorter fights, such as three 10-minute fights per day.
  2. Add strength and flexibility training to your aerobic base to increase the benefits of exercise. Resistance training can include resistance bands, free weights, weight training machines, or moving your body weight (pushups, pullups, or exercises that develop core muscles that help you flex and rotate). Strength training two to three times a week is recommended on non-consecutive days. Gradually build up to two to four sets of around 10 repetitions per set.
  3. Don’t forget about yoga and tai chi, which will help reduce the stress associated with neuroinflammation.
  4. Try outdoor exercise in the morning. Sunlight increases vitamin D levels, which improves brain function in many ways. About 20 minutes of sunlight is usually safe and is enough to produce significant amounts of vitamin D. Exercising in the sun in the morning also strengthens the sleep cycle and improves sleep. In addition, morning athletes are more likely to stick to their training plans.
  5. Complex motor movements such as dancing, racket games, juggling or playing an instrument establish useful nerve pathways.

Of course, to be on the safe side, consult your doctor before starting any exercise program.

High intensity interval training

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

HIIT alternates short bursts of high intensity with recovery intervals. The high-intensity intervals typically last 30 seconds to three minutes, followed by longer, medium-intensity recovery intervals. High intensity means the heart rate is increased to at least 70 percent of maximum heart rate (calculated by subtracting age from 220 and multiplying that 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 done in the water, on a treadmill, or on an exercise bike. Start slowly – maybe 15 seconds or less with high-intensity bursts alternating with rest periods of at least 30 seconds.

Do no more than two or three HIIT sessions a week, and allow two days to recover between HIIT workouts. On the other days, do low- or medium-intensity activities.


At some point in the future, you may want to find ways to calm down stressful old neural pathways and replace them with positive, uplifting pathways. Right now, exercise can optimize your mood and your ability to cope with present-day stress, while also preparing your brain to maximize neuroplasticity’s potential.

Exercise is clearly crucial to good mental health and a healthy brain. Aim for a satisfactory exercise plan that you can stick to for many years.

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