The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

By: Jenna Savage

Exercise is important. It keeps people healthy and happy, and it can be a factor in weight loss. In addition, to see benefits from exercise, people don’t need to exercise for hours on end. As PsychCentral reported in August, as little as 30 minutes of exercise each day is enough to keep a person healthy in body. And now that health care professionals are beginning to change the way they think about exercise motivation, as we recently reported, exercise is becoming less of an insurmountable obstacle and more of a fun activity that has both short- and long-term benefits.

Now, according to an article on PsychCentral, researchers have discovered that physical well-being isn’t the only benefit that people derive from exercise. Exercise can also help decrease stress and anxiety. And, it turns out, exercise is also instrumental in preventing future anxiety.

Researchers at the University of Maryland surveyed participants to determine their emotional states before exercising, after exercising, and then after showing them different images of neutral, pleasant, and upsetting stimuli post-exercise. They also tested the emotional state of another group, who rested instead of exercising. To determine the participants’ anxiety levels, researchers used questions from the State-Trait Anxiety inventory.

The study determined that both exercise and rest are effective at lowering anxiety. However, unlike with rest, exercise strengthened the participants against future anxiety. In particular, when shown the photographs — of which there were 90 — for 20 minutes, those who had exercised had lower anxiety levels than those who rested.

The study’s conclusion was that exercise decreases the emotional effect that unpleasant images and situations have on an individual. If a person exercises, he or she will be better-equipped to handle difficult and anxiety-provoking situations.

Assistant professor J. Carson Smith, Ph.D., who directed the study, believes that exercise may help people handle day-to-day events and situations, even they are stressful or unpleasant. Exercise, therefore, is more than just an activity for physical wellness — it’s important for mental health as well.

Though mental health professionals do often suggest exercise as part of a treatment plan for conditions like anxiety, studies such as the one conducted by Smith indicate give some solid foundation to the claim that exercise does make a difference in mental wellbeing.

The study, which was published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, may help encourage further research into the ways in which exercise can be used to promote mental health.