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Stress, Heart-health and Exercise

by Pragati Singh

According to a research presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 71st Annual Scientific Session, regular physical exercise nearly quadrupled the cardiovascular benefit in those with depression or anxiety compared to people without these illnesses.

The findings add to the growing body of evidence that exercise promotes cardiovascular health by activating regions of the brain that counteract stress. Overall, persons who got the required amount of physical activity each week were 17 percent less likely to have a significant adverse cardiovascular event than those who didn’t. These advantages were much bigger in individuals who had anxiety or depression, with a 22% risk decrease compared to a 10% risk reduction in those who did not have either illness.

“The influence of physical exercise on the brain’s stress response may be especially significant in patients with stress-related mental problems,” said Hadil Zureigat, MD, the study’s principal author and postdoctoral clinical research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital. “This is not to say that exercise is just beneficial to individuals suffering from depression or anxiety, but we discovered that these patients appear to gain more from physical activity in terms of cardiovascular health.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, both sadness and anxiety have increased, while heart disease remains the top cause of mortality in the United States. According to the researchers, the study findings highlight the importance of exercise in preserving heart health and lowering stress.

The researchers examined the health records of over 50,000 individuals in the Massachusetts General Brigham Biobank database for the study. A little more than 4,000 of the patients had experienced a significant adverse cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack, chest discomfort caused by a blocked artery, or receiving a treatment to unblock a blocked artery in the heart.

Researchers first compared the rates of major coronary events among patients who reported in a questionnaire that they exercised at least 500 metabolic equivalent (MET) minutes per week, which corresponded to the ACC and American Heart Association primary prevention guideline recommendation of at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week.

They next looked at how this pattern manifested itself in individuals with depression or anxiety vs those who did not have sadness or anxiety. This second study discovered that individuals with depression benefited from exercising more than twice as much as persons who did not have depression in terms of lower cardiovascular risk. Exercise provided a comparable effect to people suffering from anxiety.

The study builds on prior research by the same team that utilised brain imaging to discover how exercise improves cardiovascular health by assisting in the regulation of the brain’s stress response. Individuals suffering from depression or anxiety have increased stress-related brain activity as well as a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.

“When one thinks of physical exercise lowering cardiovascular risk, one normally does not think of the brain,” Zureigat added. “Our findings highlight the significance of the stress-related brain pathways via which physical activity reduces cardiovascular risk.”

Despite the fact that the study utilised 500 MET-minutes as a threshold for the analysis, researchers emphasised that prior research has shown that people can lower their risk of heart disease even if they do not meet the recommended level of physical exercise. Even a little bit of physical activity on a daily basis can make a difference in terms of cardiovascular risk.

“Any quantity of exercise is beneficial, especially for people suffering from sadness or anxiety,” Zureigat added. “Physical exercise will not only make people feel better, but it will also significantly lower their risk of cardiovascular disease. It might be difficult to make the switch, but once done, physical exercise helps patients suffering from these frequent chronic stress-related mental illnesses to kill two birds with one stone.”

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