Acute aerobic exercise and anxiety reduction: a test of distraction and mastery hypotheses



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Texas Tech University


While the popular press has publicized and the public has accepted the psychological benefits of exercise, empirical research linking exercise to such benefits has yielded mixed results (Folkins & Sime, 1981, Rosenthal, 1993). While reviewers overall agree that a single bout of aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety and increase positive affect (Petmzzello et al., 1991; Tuson & Sinyor, 1993; Yeung, 1996), no existing model or hypothesized mechanism for these effects had been subjected to an empirical test. The present study tested two psychological explanations offered in the literature (Tuson & Sinyor, 1993), a "distraction" hypothesis and a model based on self-efficacy.

The experimenter assigned randomly 146 participants to be (1) prompted to ruminate on their life problems or not while engaging in twenty minutes of aerobic exercise and (2) told that they either met or failed to meet their pre-specified goal of maintaining a consistent heart rate in a specific range while exercising in a completely crossed two (ruminate vs. distraction) x two (mastery vs. no mastery) + one (control group) factorial design. The experimenter took pre and post test measures of anxiety using the Profile of Mood States, State Trait Anxiety Inventory, Exercise Induced Feeling Inventory, and a technique recommended by Guavin and Brawley. ANOVA was used to assess the influence of distraction and mastery upon post exercise reductions in anxiety. Results showed that exercise resuhed in a decrease on the Physical Exhaustion scale on the Exercise Induced Feeling Inventory. Results also showed an effect for the mastery manipulation on measures of positive affect, but none for the distraction manipulation. An additional purpose of the present study was to investigate the potential moderating effect of the construct of psychological hardiness upon the relationship between exercise and anxiety. Results of this analysis showed significant effects on one of the nine measures of affect. Implications and limitations of the study are discussed.