Exercise Helps Reduce Anxiety Even When Faced With Stressful Events

by Dr Sam Girgis on September 14, 2012

Regular physical exercise has many health benefits and these include reduced stress levels, improved cardiovascular endurance, better physical fitness, and the delayed onset of chronic medical conditions.  In addition, regular physical exercise reduces the risk of developing obesity and its associated complications, including type 2 diabetes.  We have previously discussed the finding that morning exercise can help decrease appetite and hunger, which can help prevent obesity and overweight.

Previous studies have shown that exercise can decrease anxiety levels.  A recent study published by Dr. J. Carson Smith shows that exercise can decrease anxiety levels even when faced with very stressful events.  The results of the study were published online in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.  The study enrolled 37 healthy individuals who engaged in either 30 minutes of rest or 30 minutes of cycling on two separate days.  The study participants completed an anxiety survey before and after the activity.  Following the exercise or rest activity, the study participants were shown pictures that were neutral, pleasant, or unpleasant and then completed the anxiety survey once again.  It was found that exercise was able to decrease anxiety levels even when viewing unpleasant pictures, while resting caused anxiety levels to rise when viewing unpleasant pictures.

Dr. J. Carson Smith wrote, “The novel finding of the current study was that state anxiety was reduced after 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise and remained reduced after the viewing of arousing emotional pictures. In contrast, the anxiolytic effect of quiet rest did not persist, but rather, returned to baseline after emotional picture”.

Dr. J. Carson Smith also wrote, “Despite intact emotional responsiveness to briefly presented visual stimuli, the current study suggests that acute exercise may protect one from the cumulative effects of exposure to a variety of arousing emotional stimuli”.

It was concluded by the author that “… both acute moderate intensity exercise and seated rest were shown to reduce state anxiety scores. However, when faced with a 30-minute exposure to a variety of emotional stimuli, state anxiety remained reduced after exercise but increased back to baseline after the seated rest condition. This suggests acute exercise may enhance resilience to the cumulative effects of exposure to arousing emotional stimuli”.

This study is important because it shows that exercise has benefits that were previously unknown.  Exercise can decrease anxiety levels even when faced with stressful events.  The cortisol and adrenaline levels of individuals after exercise may be lower and thus protect again anxiety produced during stressful events.  This hypothesis will need to be tested in future studies.  In addition, the results of this study will need to be reproduced on a larger scale, and the exact mechanism for these effects should be the focus of follow up investigations.



J. Carson Smith “Effects of Emotional Exposure on State Anxiety after Acute ExerciseMedicine & Science in Sports & Exercise published online ahead of print August 14, 2012 doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31826d5ce5

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