Reblog from my livejournal from November 2010:
So I have many thoughts about this article in Wired about stress, but here’s the one I’m going to write about today.
They have a little advice sidebar, “Reduce Stress–With Science!” and this is one of their suggestions:
While exercise is remarkably effective at blunting the stress response, at least for a few hours, this effect exists only if you want to exercise in the first place. After all, a big reason working out relieves stress is that it elevates your mood; when mice are forced to run in the lab, their levels of stress hormones spike. So when you force yourself to go to the gym and then suffer through 30 minutes on the treadmill (lamenting the experience the entire time), you don’t reduce your stress levels. In fact, you might be making things worse.
The whole article is about how stress that comes from having low social status or a low level of control over your response to stressors is bad for you. (According to the article, the stress that comes from making important decisions in a high-status job is not deleterious to your health.) If you really feel that you have no control over whether and how you exercise* then that might make it overall bad for you. “Forcing yourself”, however… I suppose that could include a range of behavior. That’s pretty vague, really. If you’re truly hating every minute of your exercise, you’re unlikely to stick with it anyway. But here’s some situations where I don’t think that will cause the kind of deleterious stress that the article talks about:
-If you need to get past some inertia, but still basically enjoy it
-If you think exercise is boring, but do it in a setting where you can watch TV/listen to your iPod/entertain yourself
-If you like exercise OK, and like the increased energy during the rest of the day, health benefits, etc., but would prefer to be reading (me!)
What situation in modern-day Western life WOULD be most similar to the rats forced to run in a lab, with no control of their exercise?
Gym class! And you can combine the lack of control with the deleterious effects of low social status if you sucked at team sports/were fat/were unpopular/etc. Maybe this is a good argument for letting kids have some choice about their activities for gym class? In addition to the fact that kids who suck at team sports tend to not get a lot of exercise during team sports, because no one wants them right next to the ball*…
It might also be an argument against using the types of treadmills where the speed is set for you and you have to keep up with the treadmill. Still, you CAN reach over and adjust the speed or step off the treadmill if you want, so maybe knowing that is enough to keep it from having the same effect as a rat forced to run on a treadmill.
*Update for WordPress version: ExRX says, “Don’t try to learn a new skill as a way to exercise unless it is very simple. A novice tennis player will burn far less energy than a proficient player,” which seems to be confirmation that less-skilled people will not get as much exercise as more-skilled people from team sports–even without factoring in the social pressure to “not get in the way” of the more-skilled teammates, or the fact that people who don’t like a sport just won’t be as enthusiastic about going after the ball and scoring points. (Thanks for the link, G!)