Previous studies indicate that physical exercise improves contextual fear memory, as evidenced by increased freezing behavior when rats are returned to a training environment that was initially paired with footshock. However, freezing behavior could also be affected by fatigue, especially because rats were tested shortly after the end of the dark cycle, which is when most wheel running was likely to occur. In addition, exercise has been shown to have anxiolytic effects, further confounding interpretation of the effects of exercise on cognition when using aversive conditioning tasks. These factors were examined in the present study by comparing freezing behavior in exercising and nonexercising rats that were tested at different times in the light cycle. In addition, all rats were tested on an elevated plus maze to assess anxiety-like behavior and in an open-field apparatus to measure locomotor activity in order to directly examine interactions between freezing, anxiety-like behavior, and locomotion. Consistent with prior studies, exercising rats exhibited more context freezing than did sedentary rats when tested early in the light cycle. However, the opposite pattern of results was obtained when testing occurred late in the light cycle, an effect driven by a difference in the amount of freezing exhibited by the sedentary control groups. Indeed, the levels of context freezing exhibited by exercising rats were comparable regardless of when the rats were tested during the light cycle. These data have implications for interpreting the effects of exercise on aversive conditioning.
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