I know that exercise—especially hard exercise, like running or mountain biking—helps me cope with all of the little spilled-milk moments (literally, figuratively) and even with more stressful everyday situations, such as work projects taking unexpected and disappointing turns. It's as if exercise creates a buffer zone. Now scientists have some evidence that exercise really does buffer us at the neurological level, changing and enabling cells to function better under stress. According to the NYTimes:
“It looks more and more like the positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms,” says Michael Hopkins, a graduate student affiliated with the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Laboratory at Dartmouth, who has been studying how exercise differently affects thinking and emotion. “It’s pretty amazing, really, that you can get this translation from the realm of purely physical stresses to the realm of psychological stressors.”
Scientists studied two groups of rats: One that was allowed to exercise, and one that was not. The rats were then subjected to the same stressors, after which scientists examined activity in their brains. All rats showed neurological stress, with one catch: "... the youngest brain cells in the running rats, the cells that the scientists assumed were created by running, were less likely to express the genes. They generally remained quiet. The 'cells born from running,' the researchers concluded, appeared to have been 'specifically buffered from exposure to a stressful experience.' The rats had created, through running, a brain that seemed biochemically, molecularly, calm."