It’s no secret that exercise can help give you a boost when you’re feeling low. Studies show that various forms of exercise can be an important way to help relieve feelings of depression and anxiety. But, until now, researchers haven’t known much about how exercise affects feelings of anger — and the total picture is a tad complicated. As it turns out, exercise can have a pretty profound effect on lessening an angry mood, but as far as angry emotions go, not so much. And if it sounds like that doesn’t make much sense, bear with me. Basically, exercise can help reduce an angry mood, but it won’t stop angry emotions.
While these seem like two halves of the same coin, moods and emotions are actually different things entirely. If you’re in an angry mood, for instance, that might feel like a sort of emotional soup that can include other feelings, such as irritability and sadness, while the overarching emotional climate is predominantly angry. You might not be totally clear as to why you feel a mood at a given time — you just do. Anger as an emotion, however, is acute, and you usually know why you feel it. It’s an immediate emotional response to a trigger — like something your partner said that ticked you off. And it can pass pretty quickly, too.
Alex Hutchinson writing for Outside wrote that moods tend to linger longer than emotions do, and, when it comes to scientific measurement, there’s really no way to track them in the brain. Emotions, on the other hand, are brief in comparison, and are linked with measurable brain patterns. So, when it comes to dealing with an angry mood, exercise can help.
In order to better understand these nuances between mood, emotion, and exercise, researchers at the University of Georgia showed study participants a series of “emotionally evocative” images, Hutchinson wrote. Published in the journal Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, the study screened 430 students in order to choose 16 men with higher tendencies towards anger. Participants viewed disturbing images both before and after a “moderate-to-vigorous” bike ride, according to the study. In order to assess emotion, EEG brain waves were measured while study subjects were watching the images. Participants also filled out psychological questionnaires so that researchers could track their angry moods.
Gretchen Reynolds, writing for The New York Times in 2010, when the findings were first introduced, said that exercise had a positive impact on angry moods in study participants. Study subjects reported feeling less anger after the 30-minute bike ride, which also helped ease angry moods brought about by watching disturbing images. However, while exercise was shown to help lessen angry moods in study participants overall, it didn’t have much effect on emotions, according to the study. Still, exercise can curb angry moods and help with anger management, lead study author Nathaniel Thom told Reynolds. “It’s like taking aspirin to combat heart disease,” he said. “You reduce your risk.”
A lot more research is needed to fully understand the links between anger and exercise, and how working out might help. But, for now, it's safe to say that, when a cranky mood hits, hitting up your workout can help calm you down.