It seems that exercise is nature's cure-all.

Exercise has been known to be helpful in everything from losing weight to boosting the immune system to elevating mood. Now, a researcher from the University of Maryland has found another health benefit of exercise: it can help protect against future emotional stress and anxiety.

As J. Carson Smith says in the study, it is well-known that exercise benefits mood. But researchers remained unsure about whether those benefits extended once people left the gym. Smith divided 37 healthy young participants into two groups. On separate days, they each conducted 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise and 30 minutes of quiet rest. Then, for 30 minutes, the volunteers were tasked with viewing 90 images that aroused either positive, negative, or neutral emotions, varying from pictures of plates and furniture, to puppies and appetizing food, to unpleasant images like violence and mutilation.

Immediately after exercise, 15 minutes afterward, and after viewing the pictures, Smith measured participants' anxiety levels with the 20-question State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. The inventory catalogues various symptoms of anxiety.

Initially, both rest and exercise were equally as effective at lowering anxiety. But after participants saw provoking images for about 20 minutes, the anxiety levels of those who had rested rose to initial levels. In participants who had exercised, their anxiety levels stayed lower than their initial levels.

Smith says that this research indicates that exercise can help people cope with the stressors of everyday life. Smith, whose studies focus on how exercise impacts aging, brain function and mental health, plans to study next whether exercise can have a similar effect in patients who suffer from clinical depression. He is also researching whether exercise can help prevent cognitive decline in older adults. His studies so far have found that physical activity promotes changes in the brain that may protect adults at high risk for Alzheimer's disease.

The study was published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. The article can be found in its entirety here.