Psychosocial stress is associated with multiple health complaints. Research to date suggests that regular physical activity (PA) and higher cardiorespiratory fitness may reduce stress reactivity and therefore contribute to a reduction of stress-related risk factors. While previous reviews have not differentiated between stressors, we focus on psychosocial stress elicited with the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST).
Our objective was to examine the effect of regular PA and cardiorespiratory fitness on stress reactivity, with a particular focus on the TSST. The TSST is the laboratory task most widely used to induce socio-evaluative stress and elicits stronger stress reactions than most other cognitive stressor tasks.
A systematic search within various databases was performed in January 2018. The following outcomes were considered: cortisol, heart rate, psychological stress reactivity, and potential moderators (age, sex, exercise intensity, assessment mode, and psychological constructs).
In total, 14 eligible studies were identified. Cortisol and heart rate reactivity were attenuated by higher PA or better fitness in seven of twelve studies and four of nine studies, respectively. Two of four studies reported smaller increases in anxiety and smaller decreases in calmness in physically active/fitter participants. Three of four studies found that higher PA/fitness was associated with more favorable mood in response to the TSST.
About half of the studies suggested that higher PA/fitness levels were associated with an attenuated response to psychosocial stress. Currently, most evidence is based on cross-sectional analyses. Therefore, a great need for further studies with longitudinal or experimental designs exists.
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Manuel Mücke, Sebastian Ludyga, Flora Colledge, and Markus Gerber have no conflicts of interest relevant to the content of this review.
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Mücke, M., Ludyga, S., Colledge, F. et al. Influence of Regular Physical Activity and Fitness on Stress Reactivity as Measured with the Trier Social Stress Test Protocol: A Systematic Review. Sports Med 48, 2607–2622 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-0979-0