Be Careful Working Out When You're Angry

Illustration by Jiro Bevis
We work out for a lot of reasons. Whether you genuinely enjoy staying fit or want to do some pre-mince pie season damage control – there’s seemingly nothing a workout can’t fix. It’s a bit like brushing your teeth: we all agree that it’s necessary for good health but sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) it can feel like a bit of a drag.

Exercise is not only universally accepted as a means of staying physically healthy but is also often prescribed to manage stress or anxiety, and as treatment for behavioural issues such as ADHD and some forms of autism. According to Mind, “Regular physical activity is associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety across all age groups.” Researchers and medical professionals have known for years that working out can affect certain moods, and many forms of exercise have been shown to combat clinical depression. However, a 2016 study by researchers at McMaster University in Canada found that exercising when angry or emotionally upset may well improve your mood – but may also increase the likelihood of having a heart attack.

Published in October in the journal Circulation, the study concluded that it can be risky to get your sweat on when you’re feeling angry or upset. Some 12,000 people who had experienced a heart attack were asked about their activity and emotional state immediately prior to the attack; one in seven of those polled reported feeling upset or exerting themselves physically within the hour leading up to their heart attack.

“We report that physical exertion and anger or emotional upset are common in the 1 hour before the onset of symptoms of AMI [acute myocardial infarction] and that either exposure may act as an external trigger for AMI,” the report reads. “The greatest magnitude of association was seen in those with both physical exertion and anger or emotional upset in the one hour before the onset of symptoms of AMI.”

Now, the study doesn’t expand on what it means by “emotional upset” and “physical exertion”, and most of the participants were male and had an average age of 58 – so don’t ditch Tuesday evening bootcamp just yet – but the conclusion isn’t all that surprising. Working out momentarily raises blood pressure and heart rate, as does being stressed or upset; couple that with preexisting conditions like clogged arteries, high blood pressure or diabetes and your heart can react. “Exercise is good for you in the long term, but in the short term, exercising is actually a contradiction in that temporarily the blood pressure goes up, the heart rate goes up and it puts a strain on the cardiovascular system” says GP Dr Clare Morrison. This is known as the “exercise paradox”. As if working out wasn’t hard enough already...

That doesn’t mean you should quit the gym altogether: Dr Morrison assures us that, in the long term, exercising reduces both blood pressure and the chance of suffering from a heart attack. According to the NHS, only about one in four women in England does enough physical activity to protect her heart – they recommend at least two hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise every week to maintain good cardiovascular health. So how do anger, anxiety and other negative emotions come into play?
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Illustration by Jiro Bevis
It makes sense that working out can make you feel better on an emotional level. Knowing you’re doing your body good is satisfying in itself, while research conducted by the University of Stuttgart demonstrates that even a single bout of exercise can help moderate anger or mood disorders. Exercise stimulates the brain’s pleasure centre (we're talking the nucleus accumbens, anatomy fans) by releasing endorphins like serotonin and dopamine. It’s the same chemical reaction that occurs when you have an orgasm or do a line of coke – but don’t use that as an excuse to skip your HIIT class and have a bump. Low levels of serotonin have been linked with mood disorders, which is why researchers point to a direct connection between exercise and mood. As the saying goes, “Mens sana in corpore sano” (a sound mind in a sound body). That Juvenal chap was pretty smart.
“Many people use training as a way to deal with stress or anger, even if it isn’t their primary reason for training” says PT and competition prep coach Kit Redfern. “Some forms of exercise are better than others, though, and if my clients tell me that they're feeling stressed or angry I can programme workouts with this specific purpose in mind.” It's not uncommon for avid gym-goers to channel their distress into a "no 'roids, just rage" workout and achieve those "hate gainz". You know that hench bloke bench-pressing in a tight tank, grunting louder than the loudspeakers? Prime example.

Anger, in fact, was the reason Cathy Brown, ex-professional British boxer and cognitive behavioural therapist, started boxing. “I got into boxing because I was quite an angry little girl. When I was younger the only thing that calmed me down was boxing because it gave me a focus. I still have a bad temper but I know that when I train I’m a much calmer person,” she tells Refinery29. Rather than mindlessly punching an inanimate object, you’re channelling your frustration into a practice – and that’s true not only of boxing but of any form of exercise.

“We’re all human and anger is part of being a human being, so is anxiety. These things are bound to happen in our life, it’s more about learning how to channel that and that’s what training does: it helps you channel the anger,” says Brown, who encourages her patients to use mindfulness as a tool for emotional upset. “It’s about looking at something in a more constructive way and being mindful and acknowledging, 'I am really angry, I understand why I am angry', and accepting your emotions and then moving on. If you’re made to suppress it, it becomes toxic.” Mindfulness helps you to plug into the present moment, letting you step back from the fight-or-flight state your body goes into as a response to stress.

Figures from the Health and Safety Executive show that stress now accounts for 45% of sick days in the UK, while the NHS records that women are three times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer. So make sure to take care of yourself, both mentally and physically, to avoid IRL heartache – not just the feeling you get from knowing your love for Idris Elba will always be unrequited...
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