Cardiorespiratory fitness, regular physical activity, and autonomic nervous system reactivity to laboratory and daily life stress

Psychophysiology. 2023 Apr;60(4):e14212. doi: 10.1111/psyp.14212. Epub 2022 Nov 15.


The cross-stressor adaptation hypothesis-which posits that adjustment to physical stress as a result of regular physical activity and its effects on fitness crosses over to psychological stress reactivity-has been around for over four decades. However, the literature has been plagued by heterogeneities preventing definitive conclusions. We address these heterogeneity issues in a combined laboratory and daily life study of 116 young adults (M = 22.48 SD = 3.56, 57.76% female). The exposure, i.e., the potential driver of adaptation, was defined in three ways. First, a submaximal test was performed to obtain aerobic fitness measured as the VO2 max (kg/ml/min). Second, leisure time exercise behavior, and third, overall moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), were obtained from a structured interview. Outcomes were autonomic nervous system (ANS) reactivity and affective responsiveness to stressors. ANS activity was measured continuously and expressed as inter-beat-interval (IBI), pre-ejection-period (PEP), respiratory sinus arrythmia (RSA), and non-specific Skin Conductance Responses (ns.SCR). Negative and positive affect were recorded after each experimental condition in the laboratory and hourly in daily life with a nine-item digital questionnaire. Linear regressions were performed between the three exposure measures as predictors and the various laboratory and daily life stress measurements as outcomes. Our results support the resting heart rate reducing effect of aerobic fitness and total MVPA in both the laboratory and daily life. We did not find evidence for the cross-stressor adaptation hypothesis, irrespective of ANS or affective outcome measure or whether the exposure was defined as exercise/MVPA or aerobic fitness.

Keywords: affect; autonomic nervous system; cardiovascular fitness; cross-stressor hypothesis; physical activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Cardiorespiratory Fitness*
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physical Fitness / physiology
  • Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia* / physiology
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Young Adult

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