Category: Health Psychology / Behavioral Medicine - Adult


Acute Aerobic Exercise Helps Overcome Emotion Regulation Deficits

Saturday, November 18
8:30 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: Sapphire Ballroom O & P, Level 4, Sapphire Level

Keywords: Exercise | Emotion Regulation
Presentation Type: Symposium

Background: The nature of the link between aerobic exercise and emotional well-being remains poorly understood. One hypothesis is that exercise may change the way people respond to their emotions. In the present study, we tested whether individuals experiencing difficulties with emotion regulation would benefit from a previous session of exercise.

Methods: Participants (N=80) were young adults reporting regular exercise and no contraindications to physical activity.  At baseline, they completed measures of stress and mood symptoms. Participants were then randomly assigned to either stretch or cycle for 30 minutes.  Immediately thereafter, all participants underwent a modified version of the Trier Social Stress Test, in which they prepared and delivered a speech. Throughout the visit, participants answered questions about their emotional state and and regulatory strategies (two sections of the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale; DERS).

Results: Multivariate regression analyses revealed that baseline levels of stress unsurprisingly predicted to what degree participants felt lingering negative affect at the end of the visit. Additionally, participants who reported perceived difficulties engaging in goal directed behavior (DERS-goal) and limited access to emotion regulation strategies (DERS-strategies) immediately after the stressor felt more negative affect at the end of the study (ps<.05). Significant interactions revealed that these effects were all attenuated by acute aerobic exercise. Controlling for pre-stressor negative affect, relative to stretching, cycling diminished the impact of baseline stress symptoms on persistent negative affect, F(4,75)=8.20, p<.001, B=.79. A similar pattern was found for DERS-goal, F(4,75)=12.51, p<.001, B=1.36, and DERS-strategies, F(4,75)=18.75, p<.001, B=1.93.

Conclusion: Moderate aerobic exercise may help attenuate prolonged negative emotions for participants initially experiencing regulatory difficulties. This study contributes to the literature on aerobic exercise’s therapeutic effects with experimental data, specifically in the realm of emotional processing.

Emily E. Bernstein

Graduate Student
Harvard University


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