Character  &  Context

Exercising Helps Us Bounce Back From Stress

Image of group of men and women exercising using weighted balls

We all know, or have at least heard the rumors, that exercise is good for us. There’s this intuition that says when we get moving we’ll feel mentally or emotionally stronger, quicker, and better. Research shows that regular exercisers do tend to report less depressed and anxious mood. Moreover, there are encouraging clinical trials showing that when people who have mood and anxiety disorders engage in exercise programs, they tend to have better mental health outcomes. But why? It’s unclear exactly how exercise changes people’s emotional experiences. In our study recently published in Health Psychology, we found evidence for one of many potential pathways.

A lot of people think about exercise as a tool for boosting mood– this is the “go for a run– you’ll feel better!” hypothesis. However, this theory is insufficient. Many studies—including ones in our lab— don't find consistent post-exercise improvements in mood. So instead of repeatedly picking you up, maybe exercise prevents you from getting pulled too far down or getting stuck in an emotional low– what we think of as preventing depressed or anxious mood. Importantly, negative emotions, such as sadness or anxiety, are not inherently bad. And people who exercise get just as upset as people who don’t. The problem occurs when people struggle to bounce back. We wanted to know if exercise before a person experiences something distressing can help them cope.

Ninety-five individuals came into the lab for three separate visits. At each visit, people completed one of three activities: cycling, resting, or stretching. Everyone was randomly assigned an order in which to complete these visits. After finishing their assigned activity for the day, participants then performed various computer tasks before undergoing a stressful experience. The stressor included serial subtraction tasks and challenging verbal puzzles, some of which were impossible to solve.

We found that individuals who ruminated more about the stressor, meaning repetitive, self-focused, passive negative thinking, tended to feel worse and worse for longer. This is unsurprising as rumination is strongly associated with lower emotional wellbeing and emotional disorders.  Interestingly, exercise lessened the negative effects this type of problematic thinking had on peoples’ moods. This means that a single session of exercise before a stressor had even occurred helped ruminators recover better than on days when those same people had either stretched or rested. Exercise helped them bounce back.

We hope that identifying specific psychological benefits of exercise will be useful for a few main reasons. First, with a better understanding of such specific effects, we can potentially use exercise in a more targeted, effective way for both prevention and intervention efforts. Knowing specific, immediate benefits of even single sessions of exercise can potentially help motivate people to be active, and do so better than more long-term or abstract benefits, such as reducing the likelihood of a heart attack later in life. And learning what specific processes are altered by exercise and account for its positive effects can give us insights into what processes go awry in emotional disorders. The take-away from our study is that we can all benefit by being physically active. Exercise seems to make us more resilient or better equipped to weather what comes our way.


Emily Bernstein is interested in the intersection of emotion regulation and information processing, and her research aims is to identify transdiagnostic interventions for the prevention and treatment of affective disorders. Emily is currently working on studies examining how aerobic exercise influences emotional responses to positive and negative stimuli, and how exercise may benefit mood through enhanced attentional control and emotional resilience.

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