Exercise decreases defensive responses to unpredictable, but not predictable, threat

Depress Anxiety. 2018 Sep;35(9):868-875. doi: 10.1002/da.22748. Epub 2018 Apr 10.


Background: Research supports the anxiolytic effect of exercise, but the mechanism underlying this effect is unclear. This study examines the influence of exercise in healthy controls on two distinct defensive states implicated in anxiety disorders: fear, a phasic response to a predictable threat, and anxiety, a sustained response to an unpredictable threat.

Methods: Thirty-four healthy volunteers (17 male, age M = 26.18, SD = 5.6) participated in sessions of exercise (biking at 60-70% of heart rate reserve) and control (biking at 10-20% of heart rate reserve) activity for 30 min, separated by 1 week. Threat responses were measured by eyeblink startle and assessed with the "Neutral-Predictable-Unpredictable threat test," which includes a neutral (N) and two threat conditions, one with predictable (P) and one with unpredictable (U) shock.

Results: Results show that exercise versus control activity reduces startle potentiation during unpredictable threat (P = .031), but has no effect on startle potentiation during predictable threat (P = .609).

Conclusions: These results suggest that exercise reduces defensive response to unpredictable, but not predictable, threat, a dissociation that may help inform clinical indications for this behavioral intervention, as well as provide clues to its underlying neurobehavioral mechanisms.

Keywords: PTSD/posttraumatic stress disorder; anxiety/anxiety disorders; electrophysiology; exercise; startle; treatment.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anticipation, Psychological / physiology*
  • Anxiety / physiopathology*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology*
  • Young Adult