Although acute aerobic exercise benefits different aspects of emotional functioning, it is unclear how exercise influences the processing of emotional stimuli and which brain mechanisms support this relationship. We assessed the influence of acute aerobic exercise on valence biases (preferential processing of negative/positive pictures) by performing source reconstructions of participants’ brain activity after they viewed emotional scenes. Twenty-four healthy participants (12 women) were tested in a randomized and counterbalanced design that consisted of three experimental protocols, each lasting 30 min: low-intensity exercise (Low-Int); moderate-intensity exercise (Mod-Int); and a seated rest condition (REST). After each of the protocols, participants viewed negative and positive pictures, during which event-related magnetic fields were recorded. Analyses revealed that exercise strongly impacted the valence processing of emotional scenes within a widely distributed left hemispheric spatio-temporal cluster between 190 and 310 ms after picture onset. Brain activity in this cluster showed that a negativity bias at REST (negative > positive picture processing) diminished after the Low-Int condition (positive = negative) and even reversed to a positivity bias after the Mod-Int condition (positive > negative). Thus, acute aerobic exercise of low and moderate intensities induces a positivity bias which is reflected in early, automatic processes.
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