Forced exercise could reduce anxiety and depression just as much as voluntary exercise, according to researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder. The new study will appear in the European Journal of Neuroscience in February.
While previous research showed that working out could reduce anxiety, depression and other stress-related disorders, no one knew whether someone who felt forced to exercise–a demographic that could include professional athletes, members of the military or people who follow an exercise regimen provided by their doctors–would still reap these benefits.
“It’s obvious that forced exercise will still produce peripheral physiological benefits,” Benjamin Greenwood, an assistant research professor in CU-Boulder’s Department of Integrative Physiology and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “But will it produce benefits to anxiety and depression?”
For the study, Greenwood and his team used groups of rats. Over six weeks, some rats remained sedentary while others exercised by running on a wheel. Those that exercised were put into two groups that ran roughly the same amount of time. While one group ran whenever it desired, another ran on mechanized wheels that only rotated on a predetermined schedule. The wheel ran at speeds and for periods of time that mimicked the pattern of the rats in the voluntary exercise group.
After six weeks of the workout regimen, the rats were exposed to a stressor and, the next day, their anxiety levels were tested by measuring how long the rats froze when put in an environment they associated with fear (much like deer in headlights, rats also freeze when frightened). The length of the freeze time indicated how much residual anxiety rats had from the previous day. A control group was also tested for anxiety without having been exposed to the stressor.
“Regardless of whether the rats chose to run or were forced to run they were protected against stress and anxiety,” Greenwood said. In the experiment, sedentary rats froze for longer than the active rats.
While researchers could not draw any firm conclusions about humans based on the experiment, the study implies that people who feel forced to exercise could still get the benefits of reduced anxiety and depression, Greenwood said.