Sweat pours into your eyes and pools under your shirt as you struggle through the last few minutes of a gut-busters exercise class. The blonde instructor with tabletop abs is cheerfully chanting numbers at you, counting down the fifteen squats you have to complete before you can rest. The forehead of the friend that dragged you to this exercise in torture is moisture-free as she zips through the instructor’s commands. The instructor gives a shout of encouragement and tells you that there are only eight squats left. You think you’re going to make it! Five more, she calls. Three more. As you sink down to do that last squat, the perky sadist hits you with, “Okay, ten more! You guys are doing great!” You should have just stayed on the couch with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
If you’re plotting a complicated act of revenge involving yoga mats and a bottle of mineral water against the friend who brought you here, you should consider thanking her instead. In addition to helping to improve sleep and cardiovascular health, exercise helps to protect your mind against depression and anxiety. Exercise can even produce changes in the brain that make it able to better cope with stressful situations. These benefits can even take effect after just one trip to the gym, temporarily making a positive contribution to the exerciser’s level of anxiety, depression, and mood.
And the best part of this information is the new research that suggests exercise produces these mental benefits regardless of whether it’s voluntary or forced.To test this theory, researchers at the University of Colorado conducted an experiment to see if rats that were forced to exercise achieved the same benefits as the rats that exercised out of choice. They divided the rats into two groups—one that ran whenever they wanted, and another that ran on a fixed schedule that mimicked the pace of the first group. They found that the rats that were forced to exercise were still protected against stress and anxiety.
I guess this means I need to bury my grudge against the instructor at the gym. Apparently, she was there to help all along.