The cross-stressor adaptation hypothesis suggests that regular exercise leads to adaptations in the stress response systems that induce decreased physiological responses to psychological stressors. Even though an exercise intervention to buffer the detrimental effects of psychological stressors on health might be of utmost importance, empirical evidence is mixed. This may be explained by the use of cross-sectional designs and non-personally relevant stressors. Using a randomized controlled trial, we hypothesized that a 20-week aerobic exercise training does reduce physiological stress responses to psychological real-life stressors in sedentary students.
Sixty-one students were randomized to either a control group or an exercise training group. The academic examination period (end of the semester) served as a real-life stressor. We used ambulatory assessment methods to assess physiological stress reactivity of the autonomic nervous system (heart rate variability: LF/HF, RMSSD), physical activity and perceived stress during 2 days of everyday life and multilevel models for data analyses. Aerobic capacity (VO2max) was assessed pre- and post-intervention via cardiopulmonary exercise testing to analyze the effectiveness of the intervention.
During real-life stressors, the exercise training group showed significantly reduced LF/HF (β = −0.15, t = −2.59, p = .01) and increased RMSSD (β = 0.15, t = 2.34, p = .02) compared to the control group.
Using a randomized controlled trial and a real-life stressor, we could show that exercise appears to be a useful preventive strategy to buffer the effects of stress on the autonomic nervous system, which might result into detrimental health outcomes.
Financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under grant No. SP/I/1/77065/10 by the strategic scientific research and experimental development program:
SYNAT - “Interdisciplinary System for Interactive Scientific and Scientific-Technical Information”.