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Davis, California

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Fit and happy

Newsweek recently named UC Davis one of the happiest schools in America. The metrics they used included survey evaluations of the local dining, housing, nightlife, weather, student-to-teacher ratio and debt upon graduation. But is there something more about the city of Davis that makes for happier residents?

The city of Davis has many facilities for physical activity and a healthy lifestyle, with over 50 miles of bike paths, not including road lanes. There are many walking trails, outdoor parks and recreational pools, as well as the Activities and Recreation Center (ARC), which according to Michael Prince, a student representative of the ARC, serves close to 1,000 Aggies on the average day.

“I think it’s a pretty healthy campus,” Prince said. “On any day, you can see people riding their bikes and just taking care of themselves in general.”

One can see this healthful attitude reflected even in the local food choices taken around the area. Cindy Ma, a UC Davis student working at the Yolo County Fruit Stand, mentions the high demand among students for healthy food options.

“A lot of our customers are students looking for healthier, locally grown foods,” Ma said.

Decades of research has substantiated the connection between healthy living and happiness. Cognitive scientists have taken a look into the physiology of happiness, analyzing the prevailing mental and hormonal patterns associated with elevated mood, contentedness and positive attitudes.

One of the key mood-elevating effects of regular aerobic exercise is the stimulation of the reward areas of the brain. Key reward responses like the dramatically increased release of endocannabinoids and dopamine are seen during exercise. These neurotransmitters (chemicals that relay messages in the brain) are strongly associated with pleasure and reward.

“[Humans] are naturally endurance athletes, ” said Keith Baar, professor of neurology, physiology and behavior at UC Davis.

Baar explains that this idea is largely supported by evolutionary evidence. The bipedal (two-legged) adaptation of the homo sapiens body plan reflects evolutionary pressures toward efficiency in movement over long distances.

The selective forces stemmed from the way that early humans were thought to have hunted. While quadrupeds may outpace humans in initial and top speeds, the bipedal adaptation allows for humans to outlast prey in a chase. This adaptation may very well have had a role in selecting for cognitive reward centers during endurance activity.

Another benefit of exercise and healthy living is enhanced academic performance. Clinical studies have shown marked increase in the areas of the brain associated with memory when subjects experienced routine physical activity.

Muscles release a number of chemical messengers during exercise. Perhaps the most famous of these agents released is lactic acid. There is a common misconception that lactic acid buildup is associated with muscle soreness and overall fatigue; however, lactic acid is almost completely washed out of the muscles within 30 to 60 minutes of exercise, long before the usual onset of muscular soreness the next day.

Lactic acid is useful for a number of things. It serves as fuel for glial cells, which play an important role in the maintenance of the memory centers in the brain. Studies indicate that just a 15-minute brisk walk prior to an exam increased students’ performance by a statistically significant margin.

One of students’ primary excuses for not exercising is that there is simply not enough time in the day.  But a regular regimen of light exercise, even just 20 minutes of cardio exercise a day, can have a profound improvement on mood, academic performance and alleviating the stress of a packed class schedule.

ALAN LIN can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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