The benefits of exercise and yoga are no secret to most, but new research has found even more of a reason to sweat it out. According to a study done by Queen's University and published by PLoS ONE, exercise and relaxation activities change peoples' perspectives of their environment, making their surroundings seem less threatening, and ultimately altering the way they perceive the world. Researchers note that for those with social anxiety, this is a significant discovery.

Perception and Physical Activity Experiment

The study utilized point-light displays to depict a human body through an outline of illuminated dots. With these displays, it's difficult to tell if the human projection is facing towards you or facing away. Researchers found that those with social anxiety disorders tend to view the images as facing towards them in a more threatening manner, as opposed to the more passive and neutral stance of facing outwards.

Participants of the study were asked to fill out questionnaires on anxiety, then perform three physical exercises on a treadmill: standing, walking, or jogging. After these activities, they were immediately asked to complete another task meant to assess their perception, once again, of a projected human image. They were asked the same question: was the person facing towards them or away from them?

The Benefits of Exercise and Relaxation Techniques

"We found that people who either walked or jogged on a treadmill for 10 minutes perceived these ambiguous figures as facing towards them less often than those who simply stood on the treadmill. The same was true when people performed progressive muscle relaxation, " said Adam Heenan, Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology and author of the study. He added that these developments help explain why exercise and relaxation practices have been so efficient in treating anxiety.

The significance of these findings are two-fold. For one, they suggest that those with social anxiety tend to focus more on things that seem threatening, causing even more anxiety and creating a continuous cycle of high-stress. Additionally, the results show that exercise and other kinds of physical activity helps distract from potential threats, refocus attention and adjusting perspective in a positive way.

Recommended For You

Jeremy Schwartz, LCSW
Carrie Potter, M.A.
Keith Whipple, MA, RDT
Lindsay Scharfstein, Ph.D.
Jess Baker, Ph.D.



Adam Heenan, Nikolaus F. Troje. Both Physical Exercise and Progressive Muscle Relaxation Reduce the Facing-the-Viewer Bias in Biological Motion Perception. PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (7): e99902 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0099902

Date of original publication:

Updated: November 10, 2015