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The Interplay Between Physical Activity and Anxiety Sensitivity in Fearful Responding to Carbon Dioxide Challenge

Smits, Jasper A.J. PhD; Tart, Candyce D. MA; Rosenfield, David PhD; Zvolensky, Michael J. PhD

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182223b28
Original Article

Objective: Physical activity may confer protective effects in the development of anxiety and its disorders. These effects may be particularly strong among individuals who have elevated levels of anxiety sensitivity (AS; i.e., the fear of somatic arousal), an established cognitive-based risk factor for anxiety and its disorders. The present study performed a laboratory test of the interplay between physical activity and AS.

Methods: The participants were adults free of Axis I psychopathology (n = 145) who completed measures of physical activity and AS before undergoing a recurrent 20% carbon dioxide-enriched air (CO2) challenge.

Results: Consistent with the hypothesis, physical activity was significantly related to CO2 challenge reactivity among persons with elevated levels of AS, at high levels of physical activity (p <.001) but not at low levels of physical activity (p =.90). Also consistent with hypothesis, irrespective of the level of physical activity, physical activity did not relate significantly to CO2 challenge reactivity among persons with normative levels of AS (p =.28).

Conclusions: These findings provide novel empirical insight into the role that physical activity may play in terms of resiliency for the development of anxiety disorders. Specifically, the protective effects of physical activity may only be evident at higher doses and among persons who are at increased risk of developing anxiety disorders because they have elevated AS.

OR = odds ratio; AS = anxiety sensitivity; CO2 = carbon dioxide; SCID-NP = Structured Clinical Interview for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition-Non-patient Edition; EHS = Exercise Health Survey; ASI = Anxiety Sensitivity Index; SUDS = Subjective Units of Distress Scale; MLM = multilevel mixed-effects regression analysis; PA = physical activity

From the Department of Psychology (J.A.J.S., C.D.T., D.R.), Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas; and Department of Psychology (M.J.Z.), University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Jasper A.J. Smits, PhD, Department of Psychology, Southern Methodist University, Dedman College, PO Box 750442, Dallas, TX 75275. E-mail:

J.A.J.S. is supported by the National Institutes of Health Grants R01MH075889 and R01DA027533 and has received royalties from Oxford University Press. M.J.Z. is supported by the National Institutes of Health Grants R01DA027533 and R01MH076629.

All authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Received for publication September 2, 2010; revision received March 17, 2011.

Copyright © 2011 by American Psychosomatic Society
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