Despite interest in exercise as a treatment for anxiety disorders the mechanism behind the anxiolytic effects of exercise is unclear. Two observations motivate the present work. First, engagement of attention control during increased working memory (WM) load can decrease anxiety. Second, exercise can improve attention control. Therefore, exercise could boost the anxiolytic effects of increased WM load via its strengthening of attention control. Anxiety was induced by threat of shock and was quantified with anxiety-potentiated startle (APS). Thirty-five healthy volunteers (19 male, age M = 26.11, SD = 5.52) participated in two types of activity, exercise (biking at 60-70% of heart rate reserve) and control-activity (biking at 10-20% of heart rate reserve). After each activity, participants completed a WM task (n-back) at low- and high-load during safe and threat. Results were not consistent with the hypothesis: exercise vs. control-activity increased APS in high-load (p = .03). However, this increased APS was not accompanied with threat-induced impairment in WM performance (p = .37). Facilitation of both task-relevant stimulus processing and task-irrelevant threat processing, concurrent with prevention of threat interference on cognition, suggests that exercise increases cognitive ability. Future studies should explore how exercise affects the interplay of cognition and anxiety in patients with anxiety disorders.
Keywords: Working memory; anxiety-potentiated startle; attention control; limited resources theory; threat.