For those of you who know me well, you will know that I am a naturally anxious person – someone who frets, worries, stresses and vexes. While I am acutely aware deep down that all of this worrying is detrimental to my health and that really bad things rarely transpire, I cannot shake this attribute from my personality. It is a core part of me and makes up my inner being.
For some reason, a huge source of anxiety in my life is exercise. I can never put my finger on what it is, but the thought of exercise always makes my palms sweat and my heart race. I have almost developed a fear of it that some days can be so profound as to make me feel physically weak. I fret that there won’t be enough time in my day to fit in a gym session, or that I am not fit enough, or that I will get so puffed out during a workout that I will pass out. None of these things have ever happened, of course, but the fear still lives within me. It’s not as if I don’t like exercise, quite the contrary – post workout I always feel stronger, more invigorated and more alive. But, alas, the associated fear and stress remains.
I was pleased, therefore, when I came across a recent article in the New York Times (accessible at http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/13/when-exercise-stresses-you-out/?ref=health) that discussed the precise issue of exercising causing stress in people’s lives. Upon reading the headline, a part of me felt vindicated - finally, someone else understands me!
The article explores the effects of exercise on those who sincerely dislike it and work out only under a kind of emotional duress, perhaps believing that they “have to”, for whatever reason. According to the Times, this issue has been of considerable interest to exercise scientists for some time. Studies undertaken in animals have shown that intense exercise greatly increases their stress levels. No study until now however had directly compared the emotional effects of forced and voluntary exercise on anxiety and emotional resilience.
The study grouped together gathering or healthy male rats of a type that enjoy running. Scientists then gave some rats access to unlocked running wheels, letting them exercise whenever and for as long as they desired. The exercise here was fully under the animals’ control.
The scientists tracked how long and in what pattern the animals chose to exercise. Having determined that the rats liked to spontaneously run, they next placed other rats in mechanised, lockable wheels that were controlled exclusively by the scientists. These rats were then forced to run.
In the meantime, a third group of rats ran on little mechanised treadmills, at a steady, even pace, without the fits and starts of voluntary running. A final group remained sedentary.
In a nutshell, the results of the study showed that, while the treadmill runners and sedentary rats were extremely anxious, the animals had exercised on the running wheels (whether they could control their exercise regimes or not), proved to be quite resilient. They bounced back from the imposed stresses and were, according to the Times, by rodent standards, “happy and well-adjusted guys”.
So what does this study show? Exercise, even when forced, actually increases stress resistance. In other words, even if you are being cajoled to exercise against your will, you are more likely to end the sweat session feeling less anxious, more relaxed and happier afterwards, even when you are not enjoying yourself during the workout itself.
I don’t necessarily find this research ground breaking – I have experienced first hand the positive effects exercise has on my mood, happiness and feelings of peace and relaxation. Despite the gut wrenching anxiety I feel prior to exercising every single morning, I still make myself work out, and I feel all the better for it afterwards. I am, however, going to remind myself of this this study each time I feel resistant towards working out (read: every day). I hope this gives you a little extra motivation to boost your weekly workouts also – I’m sure that you share the same feelings of elation following exercise that I do. So, as our friends at Nike would say, just do it! You will certainly reap the rewards afterwards.