Moderate exercise may help people deal with anxiety and stress for a period of time after their workout.

Previous research has shown that exercise boosts mood, but the effects on a person’s emotional state have yet to be seen, as well as whether the positive effects last when faced with everyday stressors. A study carried out by researchers from Brigham Youth University and published on 13th September 2012 found that exercise can reduce the urge to eat.

Earlier studies report stress reduction can be achieved by meditation, breathing, progressive relaxation, and exercise.

Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Public Health have discovered that exercise reduces anxiety, and provides the tools to maintain decreased levels of anxiety when faced with emotional events.

Carson Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, the University of Maryland, and team investigated how 30 minutes of moderate intensity cycling versus a 30 minute period of quiet rest affected anxiety levels on a group of healthy college aged students.

Participants were tested for anxiety levels before the activity period, 15 minutes after the activity period, and after exposing them to a combination of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral photos. Each of these times, students answered 20 questions from the State-Trait Anxiety inventory. They all took part in the period of activity and the period of rest on separate days.

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Moderate intensity cycling was found to maintain reduced anxiety levels

Originally, Smith found that the rest period and exercise period were similarly effective at reducing anxiety levels. Although, once participants were emotionally provoked by photos, the anxiety levels of those who rested returned to their initial levels, and those who exercised maintained their reduced anxiety levels.

Smith explains:

“The set of photographic stimuli we used from the IAPS database was designed to simulate the range of emotional events you might experience in daily life. They represent pleasant emotional events, neutral events and unpleasant events or stimuli. 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 conclusions, published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, suggest exercise can help people better endure life’s daily stressors and anxieties. Smith plans to investigate if exercise can have an equal advantageous effect in patients who regularly experience depression and anxiety symptoms. He is also exploring the inclusion of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity during exposure to emotionally provoking images to see how exercise can change the brain’s emotion-related neural network.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald