Objective: Previous research suggests beneficial effects of physical exercise on stress reactivity due to cross-stressor adaptions of physiological stress response systems. However, results remain inconclusive and it is unclear whether only regular engagement in exercise modulates these physiological adaptations or if acute bouts of exercise can elicit similar adaptations. Thus, the aim of the current study was to investigate and compare the effects of habitual and acute exercise on physiological stress responses.
Methods: 84 male participants between 18 and 30 years (half of them were screened to be habitually high active or low active) were randomized into one of two groups: either an acute exercise intervention group (n = 42 with 50% being habitually high active) which engaged in 30 min of moderate-to-high intensity ergometer bicycling, or a control (placebo exercise) group which engaged in 30 min of light stretching (n = 42 with 50% being habitually high active). Following the intervention period, participants took part in a well validated psychosocial stress paradigm. Saliva samples were taken repeatedly to derive alpha-amylase and cortisol as stress-specific parameters. A multilevel growth curve approach was applied to analyse changes in the stress parameters over time.
Results: Both, acute and habitual exercise have shown to be positively related to stress reactivity. In particular, a reduction in stress activation was found for both types of exercise, but only habitual engagement in exercise exhibited a beneficial effect on peak cortisol levels.
Conclusions: Taken together, people can profit from regular exercise (i.e. reduced activity of stress-response systems). However, even acute bouts of exercise preceding stress exposure showed beneficial effects on stress reactivity. This finding is particularly important as it may provide a (self-)regulatory mechanism for people facing conceivable acute stress situations.
Keywords: Acute exercise; Endocrine stress response; Habitual exercise; Physiological stress reaction; Salivary biomarkers; Trier Social Stress Test.
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