A Network Approach to Understanding the Emotion Regulation Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

  • Emily E. BernsteinEmail author
  • Alexandre Heeren
  • Richard J. McNally
Original Article


Regular and even single sessions of aerobic exercise may benefit emotional health. Experiments show that prior exercise hastens emotional recovery following a stressor despite not changing reports of rumination or other emotion regulation difficulties. We use network analyses to explore whether traditional approaches for conceptualizing and measuring rumination (i.e. sum scores) could be occluding exercise-induced changes to emotion regulation. Participants (n = 226) were randomly assigned to a cycling (n = 113) or stretching control condition (n = 113). They then underwent a stressful speech task, followed by a recovery period. State rumination was measured through self-report. Graphical LASSO and relative importance networks and accompanying strength centrality indices were computed. Similar patterns emerged in both models. Declines in the strength centrality of self-criticism in the cycling group stood out. Exercise may alter the relations between rumination processes and target self-criticism in particular. This perspective offers important information about how exercise enhances well-being through emotion regulation as well as how to intervene on emotion regulation deficits more generally.


Exercise Rumination Network analysis Relative importance Emotion 



We thank Isabel Alexander, Sabrina Bell, Antonia Bruehl, Mikaela Carter, Stephanie Ferrarie, Gregory Gozzo, Danielle Krzyszczyk, Olivia Losiewicz, Marieke Meier, Micaela Rodriguez, Calvin Stewart, Sophia Yanis, and Hannah Zarzecki for their assistance.


This project was supported by the Gordon W. Allport Memorial Fund Research Grant from Harvard University.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Author Emily E. Bernstein, Author Alexandre Heeren, and Author Richard J. McNally declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed were in accordance with the ethical standards of Harvard University’s Committee on the Use of Human Subjects and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Animal Rights Statements

No animal studies were carried out by the authors for this article.

Supplementary material

10608_2019_10039_MOESM1_ESM.docx (418 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 417 kb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.Psychological Sciences Research Institute, Institute of NeuroscienceUniversité Catholique de LouvainLouvain-la-NeuveBelgium

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