Working it out: Can an acute exercise bout alleviate memory bias, rumination and negative mood?

Exercise is widely recognized to be good for our mental health. Even a single bout boosts a positive mood and decreases negative emotions such as anger or sadness. Therefore, it is not surprising that exercise is also used as a treatment for mood disorders, including depression. A large number of studies support the effectiveness of exercise in decreasing depressive symptoms, however, it is still unknown how exercise operates on mental health.

If we know the mechanisms of exercise, we can improve the match between treatment and patient characteristics, which in turn is likely to benefit the response rate of treatment. Strikingly, well-studied cognitive mechanisms of other evidence-based treatments for depression have not been studied in the light of exercise effectiveness; although, biological effects point towards improvements in memory and rumination.

Therefore, our investigation aimed to evaluate rumination and depressotypic memory (i.e., negatively biased and overly general memories) as psychological mechanisms of exercise. We invited 100 non-regular exercisers to our laboratory, where they were randomized to a group that exercised at moderate intensity levels for 25 minutes or the group that rested for the same amount of time on the home trainer. Before and after the training, participants answered questions regarding their mood and rumination and completed computer tasks to measure memory processes.

The exercise group reported more positive affect at the end of the study. No differences between groups were found on rumination, generalization of memories or negative affect. Interestingly and contrary to our expectation, participants in the exercise group who reported that they frequently ruminate experienced more negatively biased memories after exercise. This finding conflicts with the reported antidepressant effect of exercise. It seems that one exercise session is not sufficient to alter cognitions associated with depression and more research is needed to examine the mechanisms of exercise.

Read the full paper: Schmitter, M., Vanderhasselt, M. A., Spijker, J., Smits, J. A., & Vrijsen, J. N. (2023). Working it out: Can an acute exercise bout alleviate memory bias, rumination and negative mood?. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 1-14.

Michelle Schmitter

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