Moderate exercise may help people cope with anxiety and stress for an extended period of time post-workout, according to a study by kinesiology researchers in the University of Maryland School of Public Health published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
"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," explains J. Carson Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology. "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."
Smith, whose research explores how exercise and physical activity affect brain function, aging and mental health, compared how moderate intensity cycling versus a period of quiet rest (both for 30 minutes) affected anxiety levels in a group of healthy college students. He assessed their anxiety state before the period of activity (or rest), shortly afterward (15 minutes after) and finally after exposing them to a variety of highly arousing pleasant and unpleasant photographs, as well as neutral images. At each point, study participants answered 20 questions from the State-Trait Anxiety inventory, which is designed to assess different symptoms of anxiety. All participants were put through both the exercise and the rest states (on different days) and tested for anxiety levels pre-exercise, post-exercise, and post-picture viewing.
Smith found that exercise and quiet rest were equally effective at reducing anxiety levels initially. However, once they were emotionally stimulated (by being shown 90 photographs from the International Affective Picture System, a database of photographs used in emotion research) for ~20 minutes, the anxiety levels of those who had simply rested went back up to their initial levels, whereas those who had exercised maintained their reduced anxiety levels.