Being physically active might be associated with a greater ability to control negative emotions, study finds

New research provides some preliminary neurophysiological evidence that women who are physically active tend to be better at decreasing the intensity of negative feelings. The study was published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity.

For their study, the researchers assessed the ability of 26 frequently active and 26 infrequently active women to control negative emotions. Participants were considered “frequently active” if they were involved in aerobic activities at least three times per week for at least one year, while the infrequently active group reported exercising less than one time per week.

The participants viewed emotionally charged pictures — such as disgusting food, sad people, accidents, violent images, animal mutilations, surgical procedures — and were asked to reinterpret the negative pictures in a less negative manner or to passively watch the picture in order to experience it naturally. During this task, the researchers monitored their electrical brain activity.

The researchers were particularly interested in a pattern of brain activity known as the late positive potential (LPP), which is a neurophysiological marker of attention to emotional stimuli. In other words, LPP provides a measure of how much someone is paying attention to emotional information.

The researchers found that LPP for negative pictures was lower when participants reappraised negative pictures compared with passively viewing them. Additionally, LPP appeared to be substantially reduced in the frequently active group at the final stage of the reappraisal process.

The finding “supports the idea that the frequency of physical activity might be positively related to better ability of controlling negative emotions,” the researchers said.

Likewise, participants reported less unpleasant feelings after reappraising the negative pictures compared with passively viewing them. However, the frequently active and the infrequently active group did not differ in their self-rated feelings.

“This might raise some concerns about the validity of the results presented in the article,” the researchers said. But they believe there findings are still valid “because we found a significant between-group difference in the LPP component, which is commonly regarded as the objective measure of the reappraisal efficacy.”

In conclusion, the authors of the study said that “being physically active might be associated with a greater ability to control negative emotions via reappraisal. However, the differences between frequently and infrequently active participants seem to be small and observable only when neural measures of reappraisal efficacy are employed.”

The study, “Frequent physical exercise is associated with better ability to regulate negative emotions in adult women: The electrophysiological evidence“, was authored by Tomasz S. Ligeza, Patrycja Kałamała, Olga Tarnawczyk, Marcin Maciejczyk, and Miroslaw Wyczesany.