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Exercising to Let off Steam: Can it Burn You?


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By many objective standards, life in the Yellow Scene distribution area is pure sunshine and rainbows: pretty hills, affordable weed, and that McDonald’s breakfast sandwich where the bun is a syrup-soaked pancake.B

But, by many subjective standards, life is a hideous ball of back hair clogging the shower drain: The Boulder Craigslist site, for example, has a “rants and raves” section. It is a roiling rage jacuzzi of spit water and bile foam. Boulderites rail against “moronic students … playing horrible music day and night,” against bike thieves, against hippies, even against the posters themselves, which one poster calls “butt-hurt self-righteous losers.” We wrote to all these people; they blew us off. Boulder is often rated “Happiest City in America.”

This leaves us with the problem of how to deal with anger. Since this is an exercise column, we decided to investigate whether exercise could help defuse your anger to become the Ghandi-ish sage your aura suggests, or if you should just go ahead and kick in the glass windows of the Comcast customer service center. The answer seems to be: yes. By which we mean, “yes, exercise can help you with your anger, though in one specific way,” not “yes, you should kick in Comcast’s windows” — although we wouldn’t blame you if you did.

Conventional wisdom about anger and exercise is captured in the cliches: you’re fuming, go to the gym and “let off steam,” “work it off,” and “sweat it out.” We decided to try that. We were angry the other day, and went to a public park to slam tennis balls against a wall. (What did you think we were going to do? Street fight?) For a second it felt good. But, soon, the pop of the balls morphed into words of frustration in our head: pop pop stupid broken solenoid switch, pop pop everyone is having more sex than me, including probably most of my girlfriends, pop pop Manning’s best years are behind him. In addition, the players on the other courts kept having to hit back over the fence every fourth ball (with an unnecessary sigh, I might add). Other balls sailed out of the courts entirely: one nearly boffed a baby stroller, another nearly konked a flock of ducks, another escaped earth orbit and caused the movie “Gravity.”

The American Psychology Association says says “letting it rip” like that actually escalates anger. Gary Berg, the owner of Boulder CrossFit, agrees. He sees it all the time. A dudes come in after a bad day at the office, late, lost one sock. “Now,” Berg emailed me, “they will head right over to the bench press area only to find another alpha chewing gum, sitting on the bench with scowl and head phones on daring someone to ask if they could ‘mix in.’ With a disgusted look, that’s where the rage begins.” Check the news. Last month, Busta Rhymes threw a 17-ounce strawberry Muscle Milk at an employee of a Manhattan gym, hitting him in the head. (Allegedly.) In a Minnesota fitness joint, basketball escalated to a 10 person brawl. And in a London gym, a bodybuilder stabbed two men who wouldn’t get off a weight machine. One upside is that all men involved will, no doubt, fit right in wherever they go to prison.

We’ve suspected that physical activity increases anger since second grade P.E., when Geoff Harwood decided that the point of exercise was not to improve his physique — it was to inflict terror. At us and the other smaller kids, he rocketed dodgeballs, especially at our faces and privates. He gave the school nurse job security, and the rest of us deviated septums and facial ticks. We don’t hold grudges, though. We hope Geoff has grown into a competent man who can show Busta Rhymes how to use the commissary.

Evidence suggests that exercise can work to defuse anger. But only if you exercise before you get angry: endorphin is a great rage prophylactic. A Finnish study reported that fit Fins were significantly less ticked. If you’re already enraged, on the other hand, evidence suggests you should go in the other direction from a vigorous workout: meditation, yoga, maybe listing your worries and peeves. During our angry tennis session, we were boiling until we paused to write part of this column, which included cataloging exactly what we were angry about. And it was things more substantive than Peyton Manning’s wounded ducks, stuff we don’t usually let ourselves think about. As we listed our peeves, there on the tennis court, in the calm of the evening, we noticed the attractive older woman with a slight neck curve walking her dog by the reflecting lake. Did she have a working car or money for a ski trip or a finished novel, which is what we want? Who knows? Maybe she didn’t have any of that. But she seemed alright.

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