A new study from researchers at the University of Maryland School of Public Health found that moderate exercise can help people manage future stress and anxiety, and the emotional and mental health benefits of exercise may last long after a workout ends.
“While it is well known that exercise improves mood, among other benefits, not as much is known about the potency of exercise’s impact on emotional state and whether these positive effects endure when we’re faced with everyday stressors once we leave the gym,” J. Carson Smith, assistant professor in the university’s department of kinesiology, said in a university news release. “We found that exercise helps to buffer the effects of emotional exposure. If you exercise, you’ll not only reduce your anxiety, but you’ll be better able to maintain that reduced anxiety when confronted with emotional events.”
The researchers compared the effects of 30-minute periods of quiet rest and moderate-intensity cycling on the anxiety levels of healthy college students.
The students’ anxiety levels were measured before the 30-minute stints of exercise or rest, and reassessed 15 minutes afterward. Their anxiety was gauged a third time after they were shown an array of both neutral and highly stimulating photographs. All students completed both the rest and exercise versions of the test.
The study revealed that both exercise and quiet rest initially eased participants’ anxiety. After viewing 90 stimulating photos from the International Affective Picture System, a database of images used in emotion research, for 20 minutes, however, only the students who exercised maintained a lower level of anxiety.
“The set of photographic stimuli we used from the [International Affective Picture System] database was designed to simulate the range of emotional events you might experience in daily life,” Smith explained. “These vary from pictures of babies, families, puppies and appetizing food items, to very neutral things like plates, cups, furniture and city landscapes, to very unpleasant images of violence, mutilations and other gruesome things.”
The study authors suggested their findings could help people better manage their day-to-day stress and anxiety.
The study was released online in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Although it showed an association between exercise and lowered levels of stress and anxiety, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
SOURCE: University of Maryland, news release, Sept. 13, 2012