Exercise Improves Heart Health by Decreasing Stress, Study Finds


Researchers found that the heart-protective benefits of physical activity nearly doubled in people with a history of depression. “Exercise was more than twice as potent at reducing heart attacks and strokes among individuals with a history of depression,” says senior author Ahmed Tawakol, MD, a researcher and cardiologist in the Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The effect that exercise has on the brain’s stress-related activity may be behind this new finding, says Dr. Tawakol.

Chronic Stress Can Be as Damaging to Heart Health as Smoking or High Blood Pressure

There’s evidence that chronic stress — things like a job that makes you miserable, not having enough money to pay your bills, or a dysfunctional relationship — can be just as bad for your heart as smoking, high blood pressure, or type 2 diabetes.

Why? It all starts in an area of your brain called the amygdala, which is like your body’s alarm system. When you’re facing a stressful situation, like a big presentation or a neighbor’s dog that just won’t stop barking, your amygdala kicks into high gear.

Chronic anxiety disorders and depression can have the same effect. Studies have shown that the level of stress-related brain activity could strongly predict the risk and even timing of future heart attacks and strokes, even after adjusting for other risk factors.

That’s because when the amygdala is constantly on alert, it starts to send out distress signals throughout your body. These signals can trigger inflammation in your arteries, the tubes that carry blood to your heart. Over time, this inflammation can lead to heart problems like heart attacks and strokes.

Getting the Recommended Amount of Physical Activity Lowered the Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke by 23 Percent

To better understand how physical activity impacts the stress-related brain activity and what role that plays in heart disease risk in people with and without depression, researchers analyzed medical records and other information of 50,359 participants from the Mass General Brigham Biobank who completed a physical activity survey. A subset of 774 participants also underwent brain imaging tests and measurements of stress-related brain activity.


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