Those who exercise may already recognize that it immediately reduces their stress. But it may also help keep anxiety at bay well after the exertion, new research from the University of Maryland School of Public Health suggests.

A period of moderate exercise and a period of rest both lowered stress shortly afterward, according to the study lead by J. Carson Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology. But only those who exercised experience prolonged stress relief.

The study was published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

“While it is well-known that exercise improves mood, among other benefits, not as much is known about the potency of exercise's impact on emotional state and whether these positive effects endure when we're faced with everyday stressors once we leave the gym,” Smith said in a statement. “We found that exercise helps to buffer the effects of emotional exposure. If you exercise, you'll not only reduce your anxiety, but you'll be better able to maintain that reduced anxiety when confronted with emotional events.”

Smith tested healthy college students by having the exercise and rest and testing their anxiety state before, shortly afterward and after exposing them to pleasant and unpleasant photographs. The students answered questions about their state of mind. Anxiety levels returned for those who had only rested after about 20 minutes.  

The researchers plan to test if exercise could benefit patient with regular anxiety and depression. Other research by Smith has shown that physical activity promotes changes in the brain that may protect those at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease.