Aerobic exercise, in relation to physical activity, has been shown to have beneficial effects on anxiety. However, the underlyig neural mechanism remains elusive. Using a within-subject crossover design, this fMRI study examined how exercise (12-min treadmill running versus walking) mediated amygdala reactivity to explicit and implicit (backward masked) perception of emotional faces in young adults (N = 40). Results showed that acute exercise-induced differences of state anxiety (STAI-S) varied as a function of individual’s habitual physical activity (IPAQ). Subjects with high IPAQ levels showed significant STAI-S reduction (P < 0.05). Path analyses indicated that IPAQ explained 14.67% of the variance in acute exercise-induced STAI-S differences. Running elicited stronger amygdala reactivity to implicit happiness than fear, whereas walking did the opposite. The exercise-induced amygdala reactivity to explicit fear was associated with the IPAQ scores and STAI-S differences. Moreover, after running, the amygdala exhibited a positive functional connectivity with the orbitofrontal cortex and insula to implicit happiness, but a negative connectivity with the parahippocampus and subgenual cingulate to implicit fear. The findings suggest that habitual physical activity could mediate acute exercise-induced anxiolytic effects in regards to amygdala reactivity, and help establish exercise training as a form of anxiolytic therapy towards clinical applications.
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