Published: June 1, 2013 By

Woman and stuffed Buff ride a bike

Those of us who force ourselves to exercise still reap the same mental health benefits of reduced stress and anxiety as those who voluntarily exercise like Melanie Ricci (Comm’90), above, according to a CU-Boulder study.

Dragging yourself to that strenuous fitness class isn’t as horrible as you may think.

Past studies have revealed stress-related disorders are less common in those who exercise. But a group of CU researchers recently sought to find out if forced exercise would have the same mental benefits as voluntary exercise.

Their findings? People who might perceive exercise as being forced, including athletes, military members or those prescribed an exercise regimen, are still likely to experience reduced anxiety and depression.

The team, led by CU-Boulder assistant research professor Benjamin Greenwood of integrative physiology, designed a lab experiment using rats — some were sedentary and some ran on a wheel. Exercising rats were divided into a group that ran when they wanted to and a group that ran on a schedule mimicking the average pattern of the voluntarily running rats. After six weeks, the rats were introduced to a stressor before their anxiety levels were tested.

“Regardless of whether the rats chose to run or were forced to run they were protected against stress and anxiety,” Greenwood says.

Another CU-Boulder study found that aerobic exercise may help prevent and reverse some of the brain damage associated with heavy alcohol consumption. Researchers looked at several parts of the brain in 60 study group members who ranged from moderate to heavy drinkers. The study indicated that regular aerobic exercise is associated with less damage to “white matter,” one of the brain’s major physical components.

Read more at and search for “forced exercise.”

Photo courtesy Glenn Asakawa