Physical fitness and prior physical activity are both associated with less cortisol secretion during psychosocial stress

Anxiety Stress Coping. 2018 Mar;31(2):135-145. doi: 10.1080/10615806.2017.1390083. Epub 2017 Oct 16.


Background: Evidence linking fitness and decreased psychosocial stress comes from studies of athletes and typically relies upon self-report measures. Furthermore, there is little evidence regarding the impact of physical activity (PA) prior to a stressor. The aims of this study were to determine whether fitness and prior PA influence cortisol concentrations during psychosocial stress.

Methods: Seventy-five non-athletic participants took part in a submaximal walk prior to the Trier Social Stress Test for Groups (TSST-G). During the walk, fitness was assessed using heart rate (HR). A further 89 participants took part in the TSST-G without the walk. Stress responsiveness was assessed using salivary cortisol collected at 10-min intervals on seven occasions.

Results: Hierarchical multiple regression revealed that average walking HR accounted for 9% of the variance in cortisol secretion (P = .016), where a higher HR was associated with higher cortisol secretion. Between-subjects ANCOVA revealed that the walking group had a significantly lower cortisol secretion than the non-walking group (P = .009).

Conclusions: These findings indicate that fitter individuals have reduced cortisol secretion during psychosocial stress. They also indicate that prior PA can reduce cortisol concentrations during psychosocial stress and are suggestive of a role of PA in reducing the impact of stress on health.

Keywords: Fitness; cortisol; health; physical activity; psychosocial stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Physical Fitness / physiology
  • Physical Fitness / psychology*
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Walking / physiology
  • Young Adult


  • Hydrocortisone