Exercise Now To Handle Stressful Situations Later

exercise in the morning

Catherine O’Brien

morning jogEvery day we encounter stressful situations. Whether it be a presentation to a supervisor at work, a particularly challenging exam, or an uncomfortable conversation with a friend or loved one, stressful situations surround us in all domains of life. There has been extensive research on the role of stress is in causing cardiovascular disease, obesity, depression and multiple other physical and psychological disorders. As such, understanding how we can more effectively manage stress is extremely valuable.

The Research

Recent research from Harvard University has shown that engaging in aerobic exercise may help manage the negative emotions associated with stress and decrease one’s emotional reactivity to a subsequent stressful situation. Bernstein and McNally conducted a study using 95 healthy men and women between the ages of 18-36. The objective of the research was to analyze how acute bouts of exercise could influence one’s emotional recovery from a stressful situation.

The researchers hypothesized that acute exercise sessions would lead to improvements in attentional control and would diminish rumination. In this way, they predicted that following an acute bout of aerobic exercise, participants would have a less negative response to a stressful situation.

Should this hypothesis hold true, they then planned to test if improvements in attentional control mediated the relationship between exercise and rumination, such that it would allow participants to distance themselves from or recover from maladaptive thought patterns.

Finally, they hypothesized that fitness level would be a moderator in that participants with higher fitness levels would show better attentional control and working memory and would demonstrate less rumination compared to participants with lower fitness levels.

Related Article: 3 Exercise Tips To Prevent And Treat Depression

The Fitness Test

In order to measure this, participants attended three laboratory sessions which included:

  1. Rest control condition

  2. Acute exercise condition 

  3. Stretching control condition

At the first session they completed baseline measurements of rumination, mood (depression, anxiety etc.) and exercise level as well as various demographic information.

The researchers utilized a repeated measures design meaning each participant experienced each of the conditions on different days for 25-minutes in random orders.

In the rest condition, participants were instructed to relax (but not sleep or walk around) for 25-minutes and were given access to various magazines.

In the acute exercise condition, participants cycled on a stationary bike for 25-minutes at a self-determined pace.

Finally, the stretch control condition consisted of a 25-minute stretching routine in which participants stretched various body parts for 5 minutes each.

After the intervention was complete, participants completed a series of computerized tests which measured attentional ability.

Stressful Situations Test

Next, participants were put in two types of stressful situations. The first was a word task in which participants were timed while trying to solve impossible anagrams or word completions. In the second stressful task, participants performed serial subtraction in front of the researcher and the researcher only indicated when the participant had made an error but gave no other feedback.

After the stressful situation, participants completed a questionnaire assessing mood which measured:

  1. Rumination

  2. Negative feelings

  3. Overall emotional experience 

The Results

Not surprisingly, participants who had higher baseline scores on the rumination task had more negative feelings following the stressful situation. Interestingly, however, they found that when participants engaged in cycling prior to the stressful situation, they demonstrated diminished levels of rumination and negative thoughts compared to other conditions. There were no such effects for the rest or stretching group.

These findings suggest that an acute bout of aerobic exercise has the potential increase emotional flexibility and diminish negative emotional response.


We know that aerobic exercise improves overall mood and cognitive function but this research demonstrates how exercise can help manage emotional reactivity to stressful events following exercise.

We do not always know when we are going to encounter a stressful situation but this research suggests that engaging in aerobic exercise improves one’s ability to cope with a stressful situation.

So what does this mean for you? If you anticipate having a stressful interaction, are preparing for a performance review at work or giving a big presentation on which you will be graded, engaging in aerobic exercise beforehand may make you more emotionally flexible in the face of stress. 

Related Article: Think Positive Thoughts For A Better Workout

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Bernstein, E.E. and McNally, R.J. (2017). Acute aerobic exercise hastens emotional recovery

from a subsequent stressor. Health Psychology.

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