Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy




Prapavessis, H.


Experiencing acute stressors is pervasive and inevitable. Exposure to an acute stressor often results in the activation of physiological and psychological systems. An at-risk population for the deleterious effects of acute stress is post-secondary students. Post-secondary students experience numerous acute stressors and accumulating evidence suggests acute stress negatively affects cognitive and academic outcomes. Given the above, identifying interventions that effectively reduce acute stress reactivity and promote positive academic outcomes is imperative. This dissertation is comprised of three interrelated studies with the overall objective of assessing whether acute exercise (i.e., a single bout) can attenuate stress responses and subsequently optimize learning-related outcomes in young adults. Given the multidimensional nature of acute stress responses, Study 1 involved a systematic review of 31 studies that examined the effects of acute exercise, of any modality, on heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol, catecholamine, and self-report measures in adults. Findings from Study 1 suggested acute exercise resulted in reliable reductions to blood pressure and cortisol measures, mixed effects on heart rate, and negligible effects on self-report measures. Furthermore, Study 1 underscored the importance of utilizing a multidimensional assessment of stress reactivity that was used in Studies 2 and 3. Study 2 examined the effects of an acute stressor (i.e., Trier Social Stress Test; TSST) on mind wandering during a video lecture and lecture comprehension in 40 young adults. Study 2 results suggested acute stress increased mind wandering and decreased lecture comprehension. Lastly, Study 3 examined the effects of a 30-min bout of high-intensity aerobic exercise prior to exposure to the TSST and the subsequent effects on mind wandering during a video lecture and lecture comprehension in 40 young adults. Study 3 results did not find reliable evidence for attenuation of stress responses due to exercise. However, individuals who engaged in exercise prior to the TSST endorsed less mind wandering (i.e., greater on-task behaviour) and higher lecture comprehension than their non-exercise counterparts. Collectively, this work identified the importance of examining acute stress responses in a multidimensional manner and explored the potential of acute exercise for stress reduction and subsequent optimization of learning-related outcomes.

Summary for Lay Audience

Daily life is filled with stressful experiences. Acute stressors, such as writing an exam, result in a cascade of physiological and psychological changes in the body. Acute stress has been associated with negative outcomes in several life domains including health, relationships, and academics. Post-secondary students experience many acute stressors and this has been associated with impaired cognitive function and learning outcomes. Given the pervasive and deleterious effects of acute stress in this population, identifying effective interventions to reduce stress responses is crucial. This dissertation aimed to assess whether a single bout of exercise can effectively buffer a wide variety of stress responses, leading to improved learning-related outcomes. Study 1 involved conducting a systematic review of studies that used acute exercise, of any modality (e.g., walking, cycling, yoga), on a wide range of stress responses including heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol (i.e., a hormone released in response to a stressor), catecholamines (e.g., adrenaline), and self-report. Results from Study 1 indicated acute exercise most reliably reduced blood pressure and cortisol increases due to stress, with mixed or limited evidence for the other measures. Study 2 involved exposing young adults to a stressor and examining whether the stressor impacted their attention during a video lecture and lecture comprehension (assessed via a short quiz). Results from Study 2 suggested acute stress increased mind wandering during a lecture and reduced lecture comprehension. Building from results in Studies 1 and 2, Study 3 examined whether engaging in a 30-minute bout of high intensity aerobic exercise would buffer stress responses, leading to reduced mind wandering during a lecture, subsequently improving lecture comprehension in young adults. Study 3 results suggested individuals who exercised prior to the stressor did not have reduced stress responses, but their minds wandered less and had better lecture comprehension than those who did not exercise. Given these findings, future work should use multidimensional assessments of acute stress and continue to examine the role of acute exercise alongside other interventions to manage stress and improve learning outcomes.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License

Available for download on Monday, July 07, 2025