Exercise may reduce heart disease risk by changing how the brain reacts to stress

  • Physical activity can help reduce the chances of cardiovascular disease by affecting stress responses in the brain, according to a new study.
  • The researchers found that those who met the recommended levels of physical activity had a 23% lower risk of heart disease.
  • People with depression saw a much larger benefit from physical activity.
  • Experts say that the relationship between depression and heart disease can work in both directions, with heart disease developing from behaviors associated with depression or anxiety-related conditions.

Results from a new study show that physical activity’s effects on stress — and related mood conditions — can protect against cardiovascular disease (CVD).

The study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, examined the medical records from the Mass General Brigham Biobank of more than 50,000 people who completed a survey about physical activity.

A smaller subset of 774 study participants also had brain imaging tests to help measure stress-related brain activity.

After a 10-year median follow-up, the researchers found that 12.9% of participants developed CVD. Those who achieved recommended levels of physical exercise had a 23% lower risk of developing CVD compared to those who did not.

The researchers found that there was an inverse relationship between physical activity and stress-related brain activity: higher levels of exercise resulted in lower levels of stress-related brain activity. People with stress-related brain conditions like depression saw a much larger benefit from physical activity.

According to Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, MD, one of the researchers and a cardiologist in the Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, exercise was “roughly twice as effective in lowering cardiovascular disease risk among those with depression.”

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